Trauma Is Whatever Traumatizes You; Treatment is What Matters
Now that most of the think-pieces have been written, the fits and starts of recounts have stopped, and the electoral college is all but sure to validate the split results of the most divisive, ugly, and contentious election in modern history, it is finally all but over. A cabinet is being formed. A transition will take place. A new president will be sworn in this coming January.
And many people who have been marginalized, bullied, abused, and traumatized in their past are reporting feelings of severe anxiety, depression, insomnia, helplessness, nightmares, and despair. Others are turning to food in vast quantities to calm themselves, eating themselves literally sick: a weight-loss clinic physician at Mt. Sinai in New York said “It’s reminiscent of post-traumatic stress. This is no joke. We are taking it very, very seriously.”
In short: We know that roughly half of the United States population opted to vote in this election, largely presented by the media as “a choice between two evils.” Of those who voted, a numerical majority voted for the candidate who did not win the electoral college.
Before and after the election, other Americans chose to anonymously turn to symbols intended to provoke fear, including swastikas and memes referring to the burning and gassing of Jews during the Holocaust. It’s no wonder, then, that post-election trauma is a very real thing. In some cases, even therapists have had to go back into therapy.
A San-Francisco based psychotherapist, Deborah Cooper, reports her entire practice is experiencing the outcome of the 2016 election as a traumatic event, and the director of the area’s Suicide Prevention Hotline reports that calls increased by nearly a third in the first five days after the election’s results were announced, spurred by concerns about whether callers would be cut off from healthcare they depend on, or whether they would be able to remain in the country at all.
Understanding the PTSD Model and How It Applies
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is characterized by four distinct clusters of symptoms: intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in mood and thinking, and changes in emotional reactions, all related to a specific triggering trauma. These symptoms, if left unaddressed and untreated, can cause problems in relationships, ability to cope with everyday activities and responsibilities, and even increase suicidality.
- Intrusive Memories / Reliving the Event
The first symptom of PTSD is the unwelcome, unbidden, or involuntary return of vivid memories that cause the same terrifying fight-or-flight response in the body as the original event. These may take the form of nightmares, flashbacks, or a trigger—seeing a news report or hearing a radio broadcast that you were not expecting to hear, for example, that contains news footage about election-related news, or reports of hate crimes or graffiti.
- Avoidance Behaviours
The second cluster of symptoms may be understood as a direct reaction to the first, as sufferers seek ways to avoid having traumatic memories re-triggered. They avoid people, places, and situations that might cause them trauma-associated anxiety. For combat vets with PTSD, this may manifest as avoidance of crowds where they cannot see and assess every potential threat. In terms of the election, avoiding the topic entirely is a possible symptom; there’s even a new app to help people who are having difficulties adjusting to the new landscape take avoidance to a new level by replacing photos of the new president-elect with kittens all across the internet.
- Negative changes in beliefs and feelings
The trauma changes the way you think about others and yourself. You may begin to perceive the entire world around you as dangerous, eyeing everybody around you as potentially dangerous (“Did he vote for him? Is she one of them?”). You may begin to isolate yourself, lose faith in the world, or the country, or the future. You may begin to feel hopeless or despairing, or that nobody can be trusted.
- Hyperarousal—feeling keyed up all the time
A constant state of jitteriness, anger, and irritability may also be a cluster of symptoms related or similar to PTSD related to the fight-or-flight response because you are always subconsciously expecting danger to emerge. Insomnia, difficulty concentrating, and a startle reflex that is more keen than usual are signs of this group of symptoms.
What to Do if You Think You Are Affected
First, don’t be ashamed or embarrassed to talk to a mental health professional if you are experiencing distressing symptoms that you feel you cannot manage on your own, for any reason.
While public perception is that only “serious” traumas like war, violent crime, natural disasters, domestic abuse, and/or sexual assault cause PTSD, the truth is, any unexpected event that creates a sudden and severe perceived threat to one’s perception of safety and stability can cause psychological and emotional symptoms that need to be treated. Reactions to trauma do not stop on their own; they could, in fact, grow worse over time.
The typical treatment for PTSD is cognitive-behavioral therapy, during which a trained psychotherapist or counselor works with the person experiencing distressing symptoms to define the traumatic memories and events and unwelcome thoughts that are associated with them, then change how the body and mind reacts to them over a period of time through repeated exposure and rational (cognitive) reframing of the initial event and its aftermath.
This therapy, according to the U.S. Veterans Administration, is often augmented with prescriptions for pharmaceutical medications like SSRIs and benzodiazepines, which can have serious side effects and/or be addictive, respectively.
But in April, 2016, the Drug Enforcement Administration gave the green light to a study on medical cannabis for veterans with PTSD—the first, and hopefully not the last of its kind, as the study will involve the whole plant, not extracted oils or synthesized cannabis. Veterans have been on the leading edge of medical marijuana for PTSD.
Other self-care tips that can help managing depression may also be helpful when it comes to dealing with lingering uncertainty, anxiety, and fears (whether it turns out they are well founded or not) that many people are dealing with and reporting, both in the mainstream media and to/among themselves on such platforms as Facebook and Twitter.
If you or a someone you know is experiencing feelings of depression or thoughts of suicide, please call the national suicide hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) or other emergency services right away.