What happens in the world around us affects our mental health, for better and for worse. And, regardless of our political leanings, we are living in exceptionally stressful times. In fact, a recent Gallup poll published in April, 2019, found that Americans were more stressed in the previous year than in the past decade, and that the United States now ranks among the most stressed nations in the world. While no causal connections were drawn in the report, anecdotal evidence points to our current sociopolitical climate as a contributing factor.
It seems worthwhile, if we can, to set aside the rush of daily news cycles, the pressing matters of the moment, and the president’s latest incendiary tweet to think more deeply and broadly about the potential deleterious impact of living in a world where the bedrocks of safety and predictability have been upended, norms and expectations long-held for elected officials have been abandoned, conflict has been inflamed, hatred has been unleashed, anxiety has been heightened, fear has been stoked, and trauma has been inflicted. And with the concurrent erosion of fundamental American hallmarks like the capacity for genuine dialogue, a willingness to compromise, and an overarching sense of unified purpose that have helped mediate such challenges in the past, we face these stark realities with diminished resources for comfort, coping, and coming together for the sake of a common good.
How we frame the current situation has bearing on how we proceed and whether we will succeed in bringing about meaningful and lasting change that can reduce stress, restore a sense of equilibrium, and afford all of us a much-needed opportunity to rest and revitalize.
There are, no doubt, wide-ranging systemic issues for which to account in any assessment of the way things are now. Since long before the start of the current presidency, our entire political system has been on a trajectory to become increasingly out of balance and dysfunctional. Congress appears too often to be stymied because of uncritical party loyalty and knee-jerk partisan reactivity. Politicians across the board are beholden to financial contributors and lobbyists representing wealthy and powerful people and organizations that seek to bend government to their own interests at the expense of those who are not privy to the conversations. Attempts at structural change in the voting process through gerrymandering and voter suppression risk skewing elections and excluding entire voting blocs, all while foreign interference has rendered the entire electoral process suspect. The media, especially more politically-allied outlets, have shown a propensity to abandon journalistic integrity to essentially create political echo chambers that reinforce one viewpoint and reject every other in order to jazz up network ratings, drive up corporate profits, and slant public opinion in one direction or another. And social media platforms have provided yet another avenue for misinformation and propaganda.
All of those systemic stressors are or ought to be of critical concern for all Americans. And they point to plenty of shared responsibility to get things back on track. Further, all of those issues predated the current president and will likely live on well after his presidency ends, whenever that happens and by whatever means. However, in an already-turbulent and troubled political context, the current president’s rhetoric and policies have been particularly controversial and dangerous.
Democracy, as a system of government ideally intended to ensure voice and vote to all citizens, is inherently adversarial. And it is messy. There is a normal ebb and flow of ideas that span the ideological spectrum, and debate can get ugly. Yet, while there is a certain amount of healthy tension necessary for democracy to function, the current president’s behavior often dramatically escalates tension against a backdrop of unrelenting turmoil and at the risk of destabilizing and disrupting the nation and the world. Indeed such disruption has at times been the president’s stated intention. As such, the president’s behavior poses a distinct threat to the mental health and well-being of people who witness it and are directly or indirectly affected by it. Accordingly, this article will explore some of the potential mental health implications of the current sociopolitical climate with a particular focus on the president’s words and actions.
While many people and parts of the system must ultimately bear their share of accountability for the way things are now, there does seem to be justification to focus on the president’s behavior that frequently tests the fundamental integrity of an already-broken political system. Along those lines, a Pew Research Center poll from June, 2019, asked participants how they felt about President Trump’s statements in general. While responses differed between Republicans and Democrats, the ratings for all respondents together indicated that they were often or sometimes: concerned (76%), confused (70%), embarrassed (69%), exhausted (67%), angry (65%), insulted (62%), and frightened (56%). In a separate poll from that same month, Pew found that the majority of respondents say that the president has changed the tone and nature of political debate for the worse.
LEARNING FROM BEHAVIORAL SCIENCE
Let’s remind ourselves that stress can be and often is an adaptive, healthy, and necessary part of life. Feeling stress enables us to prepare to fight or flee when confronted with real dangers. It can also help us gear up for life events such as job interviews, tests, public performances, and social interactions, for example, that require us to be “sharp” and “on our game.” Short bursts of stress cause our bodies to adapt by releasing neurotransmitters and hormones that make it so that we can respond effectively to immediate circumstances. Stress becomes problematic, however, when exposure to it is prolonged and there is no relief. Such chronic stress can wear us down by causing our bodies and minds to remain in a hyper-alert state, constantly prepared to respond to imminent threat. And over time, being constantly activated can jeopardize our physical health and potentially contribute to mental health issues like depression and anxiety.
While there is plenty of stress to go around, our experience of that stress depends in part on how we are situated in the world. For example, some people might feel compelled to engage in various mental and moral acrobatics to continue to support a president who is the anti-thesis of what they have always stood for. Life, for people in that circumstance, becomes an ongoing exercise in values clarification possibly tinged with certain levels of embarrassment, self-doubt, and regret. Others may wake up every morning and go to bed every night with a sense of existential dread, struggling to find ways to cope with the myriad troubles they see in this presidency, for this moment and into the future. Individuals and groups that have been specific targets of the president’s rhetoric and policies may feel acutely fearful for their personal safety and well-being in light of direct assaults and challenges to their status as citizens and even their worth as human beings. And people who have been traumatized in the past may feel traumatized again as a result of what they see happening in the world at this point. In what way do your self-identification and social location influence the stress you feel?
The following are some concepts from behavioral science and the mental health field that might inform this exploration by shedding light on current sociopolitical dynamics:
Basic Trust: Trust is the foundation of psychosocial development. Erik Erikson taught us long ago that in order to survive and thrive, human beings must first be able to trust that their essential safety will be protected and their basic needs will be met. The assurance of trust as the necessary prerequisite for further psychosocial development depends on caregivers being able to overcome challenges and resolve conflicts to ensure that everyone is adequately cared for. Trust further relies on a sense of relative stability that can be threatened by impulsive and random decision-making by powerful people, especially if those people appear to lack a clear sense of guiding purpose to regulate their behavior which ends up appearing to be largely unconstrained. Similarly, Maslow’s hierarchy reinforces the notion that higher-level psychological and self-fulfillment needs can only be pursued after basic physiological and safety needs are met. The president’s actions, especially in an environment where it is unclear whether government as a whole can function to adequately serve the people, can threaten any sense of basic trust. That is particularly true for groups and individuals who have been specifically targeted with attacks based on race, immigration status, sexual orientation, gender identity, and other exploitable identifiers. Such groups might legitimately fear for their very lives, requiring them to constantly be in “survival mode” which seriously compromises their ability to thrive and self-actualize.
Emotional Triangles (Bowen): Triangulation serves to strengthen the bonds between two parties in a relationship at the expense of the third party in the relationship. We have seen the president use triangulation from the very moment he announced his candidacy when he attacked people from Mexico with especially scornful insults that continue to manifest in border enforcement and anti-immigration rhetoric and policies. There have been attempts to ban Muslims from entering the country and recent antagonism toward Muslim congresswomen. There is a steady pattern of racist attacks on people of color by the president, and a reluctance on the part of the president to criticize white supremacists and other outright racists. There are policies that target members of the LGBTQ+ community, including transgender people in the military. There have also been the president’s persistent and pernicious attacks on the media as “the enemy of the people.” And there are still, though years have passed since the election, attacks on Hillary Clinton by the president and people who show up at his rallies. In each of those situations, antagonizing and attacking third parties reinforces the bonds between the president and his supporters.
Emotional Cut-offs (Bowen): Across contemporary American culture, we see emotional cut-offs which function as circuit-breakers in relationships that have become too stressful to bear. In the face of intense, unresolved conflict, people choose to cut others off, severing relationship ties all together. While this strategy promises a reduction in stress and may indeed provide momentary and situational relief, it does nothing to address the underlying issues which can fester and manifest in less direct but equally impactful ways. In times as polarized as this, people might, for example, cut themselves off from family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and others with differing political views, and instead gravitate toward relationships that are less conflicted, even as they begin to form like-minded groups that can function as tribes to stand against those who disagree. In the end, as a result of wide-spread emotional cut-offs, society fractures and fragments to the point that it seems fair to ask whether it is a society at all. At the very least, emotional cut-offs force a reckoning with the meaning of the term.
Self-Differentiation: A factor with potential to mediate dysfunctional ways of interacting is self-differentiation which is essentially the process by which each and every person establishes and maintains her or his own identity that, while formed and shaped in the context of relationships, makes it possible for people to have a sense of themselves as distinct individuals who can stand on their own, form their own opinions, and express disagreement with others. This concept is associated with Bowen Family Systems Theory and has been the focus of developmental clinicians like Margret Mahler. We can ponder what happens to society when individuals defer to others and surrender their autonomy, in the process ceding their ability to challenge views with which they might otherwise disagree. Unable to express resistance or question decisions, people functioning in undifferentiated ways are prone to mindless consent without critique. To the degree that this happens in people across the political spectrum, it is problematic, especially in a system of government that aspires to celebrate and create space for the individual voices and votes upon which the system relies. Inadequate self-differentiation was poignantly on display years ago, for example, in the way conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh’s followers started calling themselves “ditto heads.”
“Othering”: Triangulation, Cut-offs, poor Self-differentiation and other factors might together be implicated in the genesis of “othering” individuals and groups, alienating them in ways that allow for and even encourage seeing them as less than worthy of respect, and in some cases as less than human. And once that perceptual shift happens, those who are so inclined have grounds to justify all forms of mistreatment and injustice against the “othered” group, viewing them as objects to be manipulated and used rather than as people with inherent worth. Since “they” are not “us” and only “we” matter, anything becomes permissible and no holds are barred.
Bullying: As unbelievable as it is – and it is, whether we realize it or not, unbelievable, we can routinely watch the president of the United States, arguably the most powerful person in the world, bullying others, including world leaders and nations that assert their autonomy, members of his own administration who fail to conform to expectations, political allies who dare to critique or oppose his views, political opponents whom he attacks relentlessly with pejorative insults, outrageous lies, name-calling, inuendo, and gossip, and other individuals and groups who are targeted depending on the circumstance. Bullying can inflict trauma on direct recipients, to be sure, and it creates a culture of fear that shapes people’s behavior in accord with the bully’s wishes. Exposure over time to the stress generated by threats and outright bullying can lead to what has been labelled “toxic stress” which causes people to remain on alert to danger all the time, thereby reducing emotional resources to engage in other activities necessary to lead healthy and productive lives. Aside from victims feeling humiliated and afraid, bystanders, too, can experience shame and guilt for not intervening or being able to stop the bullying behavior.
Especially disturbing are racist and xenophobic attacks that fundamentally disrespect people and sometimes even dredge up inflammatory language that has been used in the past to isolate, diminish, and generally threaten the well-being of marginalized groups. People in those groups may feel retraumatized, with past personal and collective wounds opened again by what the president says and does. They might also feel a sense of increased alienation and isolation, exacerbating negative effects on their mental health and well-being. Their circumstances can be further complicated by having to overcome the stigma and stress associated with being in marginalized and minority groups in the first place.
Identification with the Aggressor: Sandor Ferenczi and Anna Freud set us on the path toward understanding that, in the face of aggression and impulsive action by a powerful force, people can choose to identify with the aggressor as a way to create at least an illusion of themselves as powerful enough to withstand potential annihilation. The alternative is to identify as a victim. Utilizing identification with the aggressor as an established coping strategy serves to protect the person, at least psychologically, from what might otherwise be overwhelming fear and real danger. Yet in the process of identifying with the aggressor, the person can become more likely to perpetrate aggression against others, thereby perpetuating the cycle and passing on the fear and anxiety. Stockholm Syndrome, in which hostages identify with and feel affinity for their captors, is an example of this defense mechanism in action.
Reactivation of Previous Abuse: Indeed there is speculation that people who have grown up in abusive families are experiencing a reactivation of issues related to abuse and trauma as a result of the president’s behavior. Psychotherapist Jasmin Cori lists “10 Parallels Between Trump Rule and the Abusive Family” at http://www.jasmincori.com/trump-mirrors-abusive-family/. Cori lists possible correlates as, “gaslighting, humiliation and verbal abuse, volatility and chaos, authoritarian control, forced loyalty, gag orders, narcissism, invasive and predatory behavior, and incompetence.”
Over-stimulation: It is easy – routine, almost, and even normal now – to be overwhelmed by the amount of news generated by the president and the White House on a regular basis. Whether the result of an impulsive president who does not filter his words and actions and has access to direct communication through Twitter, or whether because of intentional efforts to deflect and distract from other news or to dominate news coverage, the net effect is a veritable flood of daily news that is difficult if not impossible to process. In the end, people trying to make sense of and keep up with what is happening can easily be left feeling confused, hyper-alert, worn out, and agitated.
Questioning Truth: Sometimes called “gaslighting,” we can look at ways the president and his administration question basic reality and cause others to do the same. This is frequently done using the phrase “fake news.” There have even been numerous situations in which the president and his representatives have directly challenged realities that were documented on video they had just watched. And recently, the Washington Post declared that the president has told 12,000 lies since taking office. While that is not a scientific count and there is room to question the report’s objectivity, it provides a glimpse into ways the president has put “truth” up for grabs. In some ways, this may be the most cynical, insidious and damaging behavior employed by the president and his supporters because it forces people to question facts they know to be true. It threatens to make reality seem unreal. And by calling sources of information into question, gaslighting makes people wonder how they might know anything about what is real at all. The potential damage of such a tactic seems incalculable. Of course this behavior is acutely problematic for people with forms of mental illness that diminish their grasp of reality to begin with.
Learned Helplessness: In the end, there is a risk, in the face of unremitting stress over time, that people learn to be helpless and to feel powerless to affect change. Martin Seligman gave us this concept decades ago. As a result of learned helplessness, people can lose their sense of personal agency – their sense that they can make a difference in their own lives and in the world. Indeed learned helplessness teaches people that their actions do not matter anyway, and it has the potential to not only decrease people’s inclination and willingness to act but to increase lethargy and feelings of sadness and depression.
And in a sort of cosmic sense, we might also think about order and chaos as two necessary aspects of life that ideally balance each other. Margaret Wheatley and other living systems thinkers help us understand that rigidly imposing order makes it so that change and growth cannot happen, but remaining in a constant state of chaos is unsustainable and puts systems at risk of completely spinning out of control. Moving between and balancing the two states is crucial. In many ways, the country is now living with the effects of ongoing and unchecked chaos, and stress levels have indeed increased, even as the whole system seems imperiled.
The net effect of all of these factors together may be a cultural numbness, a kind of dissociative disconnect from reality, that makes it so that news that in the past would have generated anything from concern to outrage is now seen as routine. And even if the news – for example, affairs with porn stars, outright admission of groping women at will, documented attempts to obstruct justice, as well as cavorting with dictatorial leaders and encouraging former enemies of the state to spy on political opponents – is the subject of multiple news cycles, it does not generate the energy and political will required to hold the president accountable. The president once famously said that he could shoot somebody on a New York street and not lose any supporters. He may be exactly right about that. And that prospect simply must have grave implications for our collective mental health and well-being.
POSSIBLE IMPLICATIONS FOR MENTAL HEALTH
Unfortunately, quality clinical research about the effects of the current political situation on mental health is hard to come by. There are reports that the number of people being seen by therapists has ramped up since the beginning of the Trump presidency, and that self-harm, suicide, and various manifestations of mental illness have increased as a result of the current sociopolitical climate. The increase in the number of people experiencing distress and seeking treatment seems especially true for younger people. At the same time, American culture has become notably more polarized and public discourse is clearly trending toward conflict and disagreement rather than constructive dialogue, thereby intensifying and prolonging stress and setting the stage for further potential impact on mental health.
Recognizing that individual responses to stress are unique and that there are a multitude of ways people might be affected by chronic stress, we can venture to list some specific things one might experience in relation to the current state of politics in America:
Disruptions in basic life functions like eating and sleeping
Problems paying attention and concentrating
Feelings of helpless and powerlessness
Sadness, lethargy, depression
Withdrawal and social isolation
Feelings of anxiety, panic attacks
Irritability, agitation, frustration, and having a “short-fuse”
Inclinations toward self-harm and suicide
Reexperiencing of past trauma
Dissociation – psychologically disconnecting from reality
COPING WITH SOCIOPOLITICAL STRESS
There is no handy guideline for coping with any of the effects of living in the world as it now exists. But there are basic ways to cope with stress. You might, for example:
Mind the basics of self-care – eating well, exercising regularly, getting enough quality sleep, drinking enough water, etc. (Do some research about recommended amounts. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website is very helpful at www.cdc.gov.)
Approach life in general with a sense of gratitude and give thanks for what you are thankful for. Gratitude can increase the quality and quantity of life.
Find a sense of life purpose that can be reflected in meaningful goals. Even having a “wrong” purpose can help you live better and longer.
Strengthen social connections, reaching out to old friends, making new friends, meeting up with people for enjoyable local activities by way of apps like Meetup.
Seek support from a trusted friend with whom you can talk about your worries and concerns as well as your hopes and dreams.
Seek help from a professional therapist or counselor, or from a pastor who is specifically trained in mental health intervention. (It is your right to ask about people’s qualifications.)
Pray, meditate, or engage in some other meaningful spiritual practice – centering and connecting beyond oneself.
Find and participate in the life of a religious community that offers comradery and support, as well as help with meaning-making and purposeful opportunities to make the world a better place.
Give expression to your thoughts and feelings by way of journaling, writing, painting, drawing, sculpting, music, dance, drumming, or some other creative medium.
Connect with nature, engaging all of your senses – gaze at the stars, listen to a babbling brook, notice the feel of the breeze, taste a fresh-picked piece of fruit, smell the roses, watch a butterfly fly by, etc.
Be curious, explore, discover new things. Set your imagination free. Open yourself to delight and awe.
Assert control over what you have control over, such as:
building a rich, full, and varied life that allows for focus on other things
tuning out the news from time to time or for longer periods
participating in or organizing a rally for a cause that matters to you
writing to your elected officials, organizing a writing campaign around an issue of interest
voting, becoming involved in a political campaign, or running for office
Generally Live, Laugh, and Love
And never underestimate the healing power of conversation that involves listening attentively to others and having others listen attentively to you. Listening requires being quiet enough and for long enough to hear an other. Listening can allow us to experience other people more as they truly are – as multi-dimensional beings who cannot be defined by any specific factor upon which we might be focused in any one moment. Just as we know that we are more than, say, our stance on a particular issue, so is the other with whom we might relate. Know that healing conversations are not opportunities to try to persuade another person of a particular viewpoint or to rebut what the other is saying; listening acknowledges but does not necessarily imply agreement with the other.
A simple way to engage in healing interactions is to have each person in a pair or small group respond to a very general question like, “How did you get here in your life?” and having the other(s) shut up for as long as it takes the speaker to respond – which can take minutes or hours. Sometimes it can be intensely challenging to be quiet and refrain from asking questions or inserting our own thoughts and stories, but truly listening and even letting silences linger can be magical and transformative, for both the one listening and the one being listened to. Often, it is possible to find more commonalities with the other than differences in such moments of sharing, especially if we follow Stephen Covey’s advice to “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.” Sometimes the common ground is simply our shared humanity. Honest and real conversation that creates space – perhaps even sacred space – for both participants can be incredibly validating, and it can highlight meaningful intersections where life can happen and love can grow. Indeed Mr. Rogers once said that “Listening is where love begins.” May it be so.
Because it is often hard to come to terms with trauma and stress while they are still happening, it may be that it will take historians, with the benefit of hindsight, to help us more fully comprehend the impact of this (hopefully) aberrant period of American history and its effects on our individual and collective mental health and well-being. Nevertheless, we can acknowledge that these are particularly challenging times. Yet there is a way forward that involves honestly taking stock in the way things are, finding ways to rebuild and reinforce social connections across present differences, learning to talk with each other again, and unifying around higher ideals and a shared common purpose. We are all in this together, and together we can find a better way.
Rev. Dr. Marty Kuchma is the Senior Pastor at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in Westminster, Maryland, a Professor of Practice at Lancaster Theological Seminary, and a member of CCRE.