Anguishing yet again over election results in the middle of the night, I finally realized I’m experiencing something similar to PTSD. Check out this definition from the renowned Mayo Clinic:
“Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event—either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.”Let’s call this PTSD post-Trump stress disorder, triggered by the election, to the most powerful office in the world, of a man who’s espoused wholesale exclusion of Muslim immigrants, deporting millions of undocumented immigrants, repealing Roe v. Wade, abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency, and encouraging Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia to develop nuclear weapons, among other polarizing proposals. While post-Trump stress in no way equals the level of trauma experienced by combat veterans in Afghanistan, Iraq or Vietnam, this is an experience shared by tens of millions of Americans right now.
“Before the election, at least half of my psychotherapy clients in San Francisco were exhibiting enormous anxieties around the issues of bullying, sexual exploitation, racial and ethnic stereotyping and threats of violence associated with the Trump campaign,” observed San Francisco psychotherapist Deborah Cooper. “Now that he has actually been elected, my entire practice is experiencing this as a traumatic event.”
In addition to the classic PTSD symptoms listed above, the Mayo Clinic cites irritability, angry outbursts or aggressive behavior, overwhelming guilt or shame, depression, self-destructive behavior such as alcohol and substance abuse, trouble concentrating, trouble sleeping, and being easily startled or frightened. Sound familiar? You’re not alone. Calls to the San Francisco Suicide Prevention hotline shot up 30 percent in the first five days after Trump’s election. “Some are wondering if they’re going to have the same health care,” director Courtney Brown reported. “Others are wondering if they’re going to still be allowed to be in the country. The only comparable incidents have been 9/11 and the Loma Prieta earthquake,” she said.
For some, Trump’s threats of violence to protesters, admission of sexual assaults against women, and bullying and intimidation of political opponents and the press have raised the specter of past political traumas: the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, and his brother Robert in 1968; The fact that more than a dozen Nixon campaign operatives served time in jail for campaign finance violations and political dirty tricks—and Nixon himself resigned in 1974—provided some solace, but the shock remained.
And then there was the 2000 electoral stalemate between Al Gore and George W. Bush, ultimately decided by a 5-4 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court rather than the will of the people. The epically misguided invasion of Iraq and subsequent horrors in the Middle East as well as Brussels, Paris, Madrid and other terrorist-targeted centers, followed.
The first step in treating PTSD, psychotherapist Cooper says, is to admit you are suffering from trauma. “This is a time to reach out, feel the validation that others are experiencing similar things, and then figure out what we each can do individually about it, both emotionally and with action. Some need to take to the streets, some to the couch.” One thing Cooper warns against is trying to cope with the election as something normal. “This is not normal.”
For those contending with suicidal thoughts, San Francisco Suicide Prevention suggests additional steps.
- Take compassionate, caring actions to support others. Help a friend in crisis, or a stranger in need, or volunteer to assist others in a cause that you care about.
- Limit your interaction with things that might aggravate your stress. In its survey on stress and the 2016 election, the American Psychological Association found that adults who use social media are more likely to be stressed out by the election than those who don’t. Unplug for a while.
- Call the Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Available 24/7, it’s free and confidential.
Learn more about PTSD in our book, Healing the Brain.