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What Does "Political Trauma" Mean?

Trump Supporters Are Making It Impossible For Americans Like Me to Heal

On election night 2020, I accepted a friend's invitation to watch a movie over Zoom. After Austenland and in between episodes of Schitt's Creek, we checked Twitter. We remained calm as the "red mirage" that news outlets had predicted would appear before mail-in ballots were counted indeed materialized. She's a former field organizer for the Obama campaign, and her lack of anxiety kept my mind from racing. I even got a few hours of sleep.

It was a stark contrast from election night four years earlier when I spent the night on social media alone, increasingly terrified as each state's winner was projected. I'm liberal, part Latinx, a wheelchair user, and a journalist. So when Donald Trump mocked a disabled reporter on the 2016 campaign trail, it was as personal an attack as when he casually mentioned grabbing women by the genitals.

Trump himself never scared me as much as what his ascent to power meant. Millions of Americans voted for the prejudiced, discriminatory, and hateful behavior and practices he represents. So, alone and unable to sleep that night in November 2016, I cried and felt real fear for the first time in my life. I distinctly remember wondering, "Why do so many people in my country hate me?"

New York is one of the most reliably Democratic states in the country, but I live in one of its red counties. I'd seen plenty of Trump signs and flags while driving down main roads, but their meaning hit me differently when the election results came in. In the days and weeks following one of the loneliest nights of my life, I grieved feeling safe in my country. My anxiety got so bad, I decided to treat it with medication so I could talk to people without needing to know who they voted for to feel safe.

Disability-rights activist and creator of the viral hashtags #DisTheOscars, #AbledsAreWeird, and #ThingsDisabledPeopleKnow Imani Barbarin decided to leave the country after Trump's win in 2016. "I woke up at 4 in the morning and saw he had won, I threw up, and then I bought a ticket for Paris to study abroad," she told POPSUGAR. She had been deferring her acceptance to the American University of Paris and decided it was time to go.

While I stayed put in America, medication was the right choice for me, and I've been thriving in my professional life and managing well enough during the pandemic and Trump's nearly four years in office. But even though Barbarin was away for about two years, as a Black disabled woman, she can't tune out the news as easily as I can when I need a break. It's partly because a suitable mental health professional is difficult for her to find. Being a member of two different marginalized groups means she has two different identities they must understand. "I've met great psychologists that were great about talking [about] Black identity and Black issues," Barbarin said. But she ran into issues explaining to them why she claims disability as part of her identity. "It was like starting at phase one with them, which is kind of disheartening when we think about how often mental health issues occur [for] Black and brown people with disabilities."

Bombarded by Trauma

In the days following this election, I felt the intense fear of four years ago creep back into my bones. The weekend Joe Biden was declared president-elect, I had a Champagne toast over Zoom with anyone who would indulge me. But even as Biden's victory speech called for healing, I felt a new kind of anxiety when Trump refused to concede and filed lawsuits casting doubt on our whole election process. (Per a CNBC/Change Research poll conducted in mid-November, only three percent of Trump voters believe Biden legitimately won the election.) As I followed the postelection news on TV, I heard a new (to me) term to describe what I have felt nearly every day of Trump's presidency: political trauma. I can think of no better term for what I have experienced since he's taken office. Political trauma is not a mental health diagnosis, but it's a legitimate concept, so I wanted to learn more about it from a mental health professional with a unique understanding of what marginalization feels like. Someone who could give me (and everyone else) tips on how to heal, even as we experience the stress that comes with a begrudged transition of power unlike any other in our nation's history.

Dr. Zamira Castro is a Latinx psychologist in private practice and at Florida Atlantic University who identifies as queer. "[Political trauma] is the outcome of traumatic events that have happened at the social level with political consequences and ramifications for certain groups of people based on their group membership," Dr. Castro told POPSUGAR. It impacts our thoughts, feelings, and behavior.

People who did not vote for Trump are more likely members of marginalized communities, so we are more likely to experience this. "These past four years have been a bombardment of traumatic stress for many marginalized folk," Dr. Castro said. She explained that over the past four years, we may have been experiencing chronic trauma, which happens over a longer period of time.

This trauma is often felt on an individual level in the form of discrimination and hate crimes. According to an FBI report, hate crimes increased by about 20 percent from 2016 to 2019. Such crimes included assault, destruction or vandalism of property, and theft or robbery. Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism (CSHE) at California State University, where the FBI's data was analyzed, reported that there were 51 hate-related murders in 2019. That's the most this country has seen since the 1990s.

For a social media influencer like Barbarin, behavior like this often comes in the form of death threats. I was struck by how casually she said, "That's not exactly unheard of for Black women. So, I'm not really all that alarmed."

Dr. Castro also cited viral videos featuring marginalized people being harassed and bullied as examples of the current administration's negative influence being felt on a personal level. "You're not even able to quite process or heal from one injury before you're being assaulted with another," she said. "And I think that that then also complicates the process of being able to make sense of what's happening and then be able to move on from it somehow."

In his victory speech, President-elect Biden spoke about healing from the negativity and political divisiveness that the nation has experienced under the Trump administration. But on an individual level, how do we recover from the political trauma that we are still being subjected to?

Moving From Blame to Community

Dr. Castro spoke about the importance of naming experiences, which she does for her clients whenever possible. Providing language for others "empowers someone to be able to speak about their story and be able to locate the damage where it is." She said we have a tendency to blame ourselves for the effects of our trauma. So, for example, the fact that I prefer not to leave my home immediately after elections isn't a personal problem I should beat myself up about. It's a symptom of living under an oppressive administration for so long.

Dr. Castro also emphasized the importance of listening and said one of the best things she can do for her patients is to help them feel validated. "So much of what hurts when we're suffering emotionally, psychologically is feeling that we're alone and feeling that our pain is ours alone to bear or that it doesn't matter to others — that it's too insignificant to matter to others," she said. "One of the more powerful things that I could offer someone else is sitting with them. And sitting with them intently."

I think this is why I gravitate toward people with our same beliefs: because it's necessary to confirm that with so many people in the country willing to allow Trump's hate-fueled power trip to continue, I'm at least surrounded by people who also believe that anyone who spits such rhetoric is unfit to lead.

Dr. Castro said that "when you have something like your humanity being under assault for years upon years, and in more explicit fashion than ever with this current administration," being validated by other like-minded and caring folks can be a meaningful salve.

Listening to Barbarin, I realized that while my anxiety and trauma are valid, I need to be a better ally for Black disabled women like her. "The reason why we never take a break on these issues is because the minute we rest, [less marginalized people] slack," she said.

A Nation in Need of a "Cooldown"

We can also heal by continuing to practice self-care, maintaining our personal boundaries, and not socializing with people who make us feel unsafe — because Trump supporters aren't leaving the country when he leaves the White House. Dr. Castro called "being the bigger person" an "incomplete" piece of advice that we don't have to follow in every situation. In that case, I will not be empathizing with Trump supporters. Ever.

If you journal, Dr. Castro suggests asking yourself specific questions to prompt an examination of feelings. Or spend five minutes with your eyes closed examining how you feel and where you are feeling it in your body as an effective way to slow down and check in with yourself.

For Barbarin to be able to consciously and regularly practice self-care, she needs to be able to trust that the people who are stepping in for her understand the urgency of the change that still needs to happen in the country. "It's all fine and good that people tell Black women and tell the marginalized that they should rest, but unless we can feel comfortable leaving the movement for a couple of minutes to take a break without it completely falling apart without our constant vigilance . . . it doesn't work." Barbarin does try to lie down and literally stop thinking when she's reached a personal limit but said it's very hard for her to do.

As a nation, Dr. Castro said we need a "cooldown." Some of us have been in a threatening situation for so long under this administration that the biological alarms in our bodies that help us deal with threats don't function properly. "We've been so activated, and this election and transition, I don't think it's done much to soothe our worries and soothe our overactive nervous systems," she said. "I think we're still very much on edge and on alert and activated."

President-elect Biden is aware of the stress the country has been under and demonstrated a willingness to help the country heal through his actions. Along with choosing Kamala Harris to be the first Black, Asian, and woman vice president, he's assembled one of the most diverse cabinets in US history, including appointing an all-women communications team. This tells me he knows whose voices have been silenced the most since 2016 and is committed to making sure they're heard not only in his administration but also hopefully for many years to come.

But the work is far from over, and the most dangerous thing we can do as a nation is become too complacent with a Biden administration, Barbarin said. "We're at the edge of a cliff right now, on so many different political issues," she said. "Every single issue that you can think of is in dire straits as we're speaking." So while Americans do need a leader whose core beliefs don't cause vulnerable communities more trauma, Biden won't help those who need it most if he sees himself as a president whose job is just to "stop the bleeding," as Barbarin described it. We need an administration that will begin trying to heal the root cause of the trauma, which involves fixing 400 years of flawed systems.

"What would really make me feel like I could sleep at night is if we did a truth and reconciliation commission not just for the Trump administration but for the, for this entire country, like from the birth of this country, until now we need a truth and reconciliation [commission]," Barbarin said.

Speaking with Dr. Castro and Barbarin taught me that healing from political trauma starts on a personal level. I'm the only one who knows how I can best move forward and heal the damage Trump's administration has done to me, just as you are the only one who can know what will work for you. But with a leader like Biden committed to moving the nation forward, hopefully I'll never have to experience fear as I did on the night of the 2016 election — and the chronic anxiety of the Trump administration — ever again. I hope the next time Barbarin goes to Paris, it'll be because she needs a vacation, not to escape the traumatic behavior she knows to expect from the president and their supporters.

Image Source: Craig Hanson
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