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Feeling anxious? Can’t sleep? You’re far from alone.
In the chaotic two weeks that Donald Trump has been president — yes, it has only been two weeks — Americans have been barraged with a frenzied news cycle of terror, panic, and protest. And by many accounts, it’s led to a national rise in stress levels, insomnia, and general malaise.
Columnists have written about these days being “emotionally exhausting” and “deeply traumatic”; in one moving essay, Martina Navratilova and Masha Gessen expressed how “this anger and despair make both of us feel as if we are losing our home.”
Many have even come up with a name for this new affliction: “Trump trauma,” with its own hashtag.
And while invoking “trauma” — defined by the American Psychological Association as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster” after which “shock and denial are typical” — may seem like an overreach to some, experts say it makes sense, as does the steep rise in anxiety.
“The primary element that makes stress traumatic is the sense of being out of control,” Heidi Hanna, executive director of the American Institute of Stress, tells Yahoo Beauty. “When political policies are being enforced that people can’t change or believe they can’t influence in some way, or even have their opinions heard, it can feel overwhelming.”
Hanna, whose books include Stressaholic: 5 Steps to Transform Your Relationship to Stress, adds, “People are experiencing changes at a very rapid rate with this current political shift, which can lead to a more extreme sense of stress.” She also notes that these feelings are highly contagious.
“Our brains are wired to help us survive, so when we see other people being stressed, we can quickly recognize nonconscious cues that leave us feeling stressed, even if we don’t realize it,” she explains. “We can tolerate change better when we believe that we have social support and other resources to cope. When everyone around us is stressed out and we’re getting bombarded with messages in media telling us we should be stressed out, the impact is magnified and could certainly lead someone to feel traumatized.”
Tremendous uncertainty makes us less tolerant and more suspicious
Collective trauma can lead to mass panic, notes Harvard psychiatrist Srini Pillay, CEO of NeuroBusiness Group and author of the upcoming Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind. “When there is huge change, the brain goes into a state of chaos called ‘cognitive dissonance.’ The brain’s conflict center is overactivated,” he tells Yahoo Beauty. “This conflict detector and processor is also activated when there is tremendous uncertainty and, in fact, biases the brain to believe that doom and gloom is ahead. One showed that, under conditions of uncertainty, up to 75 percent of people may mispredict when bad things are going to happen because of this exaggerated brain response. They metaphorically think that the sky is going to definitely fall down, when it may or may not.”
Pamela Rutledge, a media psychologist and founder of the Media Psychology Research Center, points to the endlessly frantic tone of the news cycle and its many forms as fuel for people’s anxieties.
“The constant state of emergency keeps people anxious and fearful,” Rutledge tells Yahoo Beauty. “Humans are biologically predisposed to seek safety and security; it is part of our evolutionary heritage, from when safety was about lions on the savanna and not Twitter feeds. Our brains were not designed for the modern world. Fear and stress raise our cortisol levels and trigger our innate fight, flight, or freeze responses. When we are in these states, we lose our ability to think as rationally and clearly and are more inclined to ‘circle the wagons,’ making us less tolerant and more suspicious as we search for ways to feel safer.”
Rutledge believes it’s this irrationality, and subsequent intolerance and antagonism, that can be the most dangerous fallout, as it “creates a need for safety that overrides reason.” Across social media, she says, people are no longer willing to tolerate differing opinions, and “all of this triggers our instinctive defensive responses, not our rational, cognitive ones.”
Lack of sleep exacerbates stress
The insomnia many are experiencing is also a risky part of the current state of emotions, Hanna points out. “Sleep helps the brain and body repair from the natural wear and tear of the day,” she says. “More stress means more damage to our cells, and if we don’t allow ourselves to rest adequately, stress can accumulate to toxic levels.” Unfortunately, she says, it’s a vicious cycle, in that “a lack of sleep makes us more stressed, which causes us to rely on fake energy and stimulation to feel alert, which ultimately makes us more stressed and unable to get the sleep we need.”
So what’s a sufferer of Trump trauma to do?
Put your phone down, close your laptop, shut off the TV, and back away quickly, basically.
“The key to this will be for each of us to step out of the maelstrom long enough to think rather than react. Mindfulness practices, moments of focus, meditation, deep breathing, or whatever methods a person chooses to re-center are essential so that our values and goals guide our behavior,” Rutledge says, “even when what we see or hear makes us want to lash out.”
Set clear personal boundaries for media consumption
“Make sure to turn it off at least an hour before sleep, creating bedtime rituals that help you to unwind — like reading a positive, inspirational, or funny book on paper, listening to calming music, taking a hot bath or shower, doing some gentle stretching, or writing down things you feel grateful for,” notes Hanna. One study showed that people who watched just three minutes of negative news in the morning were 27 percent more likely to rate their day as negative, she notes.
Let your mind wander
“At times of stress, it is critical to protect the over activated brain. … One way to do this is to build in time for ‘unfocus’ into your day,” Pillay says. So how do you do this? “Set aside 10 minutes a day to daydream about an inspiring vision for yourself. Make this deliberate,” he suggests. “Called ‘positive constructive daydreaming,’ this kind of deliberate ‘switching off’ from perception and committing to discovering what’s going on inside your brain engages a key antistress circuit, allowing your brain to more comfortably switch between focused and unfocused states.” To do this most optimally, he offers, spend time on a “low-key” activity such as knitting or gardening.
Accentuate the positive
Don’t just minimize the negative news in your environment, Hanna suggests. “Set some boundaries around how often and for how long you’ll look at important updates on news, politics, stock market, and the like, and spend at least as much time nourishing your brain with things that make you feel happy, giggle out loud, or express creativity or gratitude,” she says. And then, she urges, “get some sleep.”