Because this is a mental health column, I usually avoid political commentary, and I’ll try not to do too much now. But this week the subject is how we’re responding psychologically to Donald Trump, and here politics and mental health overlap.
My personal view of Trump’s character was best summed-up by the incomparable Charles Blow, who recently wrote in the New York Times, “Donald Trump is a vulgar, uninformed, anti-intellectual, extremely unpopular grifter helming a family of grifters who apparently intend to milk their moment on the mount for every red cent.” I also share Carl Bernstein’s view of Trump as “authoritarian” with a “pathological disdain for the truth.” I believe that he suffers from a severe character disorder (Narcissistic Personality Disorder), that he is dangerously unstable, and that he represents a clear and present danger to the country and to the world. I believe that it is the duty of every citizen who sees what is happening to use all legal and nonviolent tools available to us to protect and defend those he targets, and to oppose, resist, and thwart this regime.
The reason that politics and mental health overlap where Trump is concerned is that this administration is profoundly stressful to almost anyone who isn’t delusional and is paying attention (and that includes many of his supporters), and we’re going to have to manage this stress for however long this dark time in American history lasts. I have pitifully few suggestions for how to do this, because I’m still trying to find my own way, but here are a few ideas:
First, if you’re fearful, angry or stressed, understand that your reactions are normal. More than half of Americans (57 percent) say the current political climate is a very or somewhat significant source of stress, and nearly half (49 percent) say the same about the outcome of the election, according to an American Psychological Association poll conducted in January. Katherine Nordal, PhD, APA’s executive director for professional practice, commented, “The stress we’re seeing around political issues is deeply concerning, because it’s hard for Americans to get away from it. We’re surrounded by conversations, news and social media that constantly remind us of the issues that are stressing us the most.” Between August 2016 and January 2017, the overall average reported stress level of Americans rose from 4.8 to 5.1, on a scale where 1 means little or no stress and 10 means a great deal of stress, according to the APA survey. This represents the first significant increase in the 10 years since the Stress in America survey began. At the same time, more Americans said that they experienced physical and emotional symptoms of stress in the prior month, health symptoms that the APA warns could have long-term consequences.
So how do we respond to this stress? I think that the most important thing, above everything else, is to listen to your feelings and to treat them with respect. You’re not “overreacting,” you aren’t a “snowflake” you don’t need to “suck it up,” and your feelings aren’t misleading you. It really is as bad as it seems. If you believe, as I do, that this presidency is a serious threat, then you must also believe that you have a moral obligation not to compromise with it, and not to buy into the tendency of too many to normalize this abnormal situation. Listen to what your heart tells you, and stand in defense of the truth as you understand it. This is what it means to behave normally in an abnormal situation.
That said, the very gravity of the moment may be a good reason to limit exposure to the media. We do have to be informed in order to resist effectively, but the obligation to know what is happening doesn’t mean that we have to stay plugged in 24/7. For many of us, following all the minutiae of this train wreck is almost an addiction. It’s as if our internal emergency buttons have gotten stuck in the “on” position, and we spend hours every day keeping ourselves in states of agitation, fear, and anger – maybe because it feels too dangerous to look away. It is as if the country and Trump are in a toxic relationship. He’s the abusive partner who sucks all of the air out of the room, and it’s a victory to be able to refocus our attention on our own well-being for even a moment. Set your intention to do something every day to relax and self-soothe – exercise, spend time outdoors, meditate, walk, or just be quiet. This is an especially important time to take good care of ourselves.
Debating the issues is important, but we should all refuse to participate in any discussions of the “libtard/repug” variety. American political debates on social media in the past decade seem to have degenerated into juvenile rants and name-calling. Such exchanges are demeaning to all who participate in them; they trivialize the important issues being discussed; they don’t advance causes or change minds; and they are enormously stressful.
While we should avoid all forms of hate-speech, it is vitally important that we speak from the best in ourselves. Let’s not just focus on what we want to move away from, but remember what we want our destination to be. In saying no to hate and intolerance, we must also say yes to compassion and kindness, and demonstrate our commitment to these values not only by the way we speak, but by the way we live.
Finally, it’s important in times like this to resist cynicism and nihilism. One of my personal heroes. Howard Zinn, author of the monumental People’s History of the United States, reminds us of how important it is to preserve hope and optimism: “To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”