The Reality of Political Trauma

Political message spray painted on wall

In the midst of the trauma of impeachment proceedings in Washington DC, the various political debates and the barrage of news items about candidates and their degrees of honesty, integrity and abilities to maintain our democracy, many of us may be actually experiencing what can be termed “political trauma.”

If you Google the term, you will find there are many technical research papers describing how various politics and resulting policies all over the world can have enormous psychological effects on people. This is not just an American phenomenon.

In 2016, Huffington Post published an article entitled, “Political Poison and Collective Trauma” where author Michael Meade shares the following: “There is growing ‘collective trauma’ as news of tragic shootings, terrorist atrocities and cultural unrest come from all sides and in a rapid succession that allows little time to process, much less integrate the effects of trauma. Amidst all the radical changes and deepening tragedies, anxiety becomes a free-floating collective state … As archaic fears and hatreds rise to the surface, typical societal containers rattle and crack, becoming less able to contain the flood of extreme ideas, raw energies and dark emotions that surge through the world. Facing intractable problems and lacking internal stability, cultural institutions can fail to contain the unconscious energies arising from the depths and become instead vehicles for acting out the growing insecurities and increasing fears of people.”

governmental building

This is a powerful image of many people feeling as if they are trapped in a dangerous world that threatens feelings of safety and causes both individual and collective anxiety about the safety of the world and the preservation of our democracy. Remember: a key component necessary for a situation to be considered a trauma is when a person feels powerless to escape. For many Americans today, there can be overriding feelings of fear and powerlessness with regard to what is happening politically.

Another article highlights research on the amount of anxiety Americans are currently feeling: The American Psychological Association‘s 2016 “Stress in America” survey, conducted online among some 3,400 American adults and published in February of 2017, found that 63 percent of respondents regard the future of the country as “a significant source of stress”; some 56 percent “say that they are stressed by the current political climate.”

My intent is not to demean the President or side with his opponents. However, the political climate can be viewed through a trauma lens. Science and research collaborate the stresses the current political climate appears to be causing.

The article also talks about the trifecta of hormones – adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine, that people experience because of the political climate. “The Atlantic‘s Olga Khazan diagnosed the process nicely in 2015: ‘Adrenaline speeds up your heart rate and can raise blood pressure. Cortisol causes changes in the blood vessels that can, over time, increase the risk of heart attack or stroke.’ The cortisol, in turn, taps into your body fat for glucose, resulting in a boost in blood sugar and the compounds that can increase your risk of chronic health problems. In the short-term, the body’s hormone cocktail is a safety mechanism; in the long-term, it’s a betrayal.”

As Americans, I think we love our country and can become extremely anxious if we think there might be forces that are somehow hurting the well-being of our country. This is true regardless of your political bent.

image of armed guards at rally

I think this information can explain some of why many of us are experiencing high levels of anxiety related to the political climate of our country. It also means that we can each focus on becoming more respectful of each other’s political positions. We can also claim our political power by doing research around what our local, state and national political representatives are doing as a way to turn fear into gaining information and taking action in healthy and meaningful ways.

For some specific ideas, you can check out the Campaign for Trauma-Informed Policy and Practices. Its members strive to encourage constituents of Congress and all the political realms to promote greater trauma-informed practices in general.

Please know that if you are experiencing a lot of anxiety around all of the political news stories, it is a real phenomenon that has a name: political trauma.

Invitation for Reflections:

  1. What have you noticed in your own body and mind when viewing or reading about some of the political actions being taken at a national and/or local level? Does it seem like your stress levels are higher than they have been in the last several years?
  2. What are some specific measures you can take to gain accurate information and to avoid being bombarded by exposure to emotionally charged and inaccurate or exaggerated political claims?
  3. What are some specific steps you can take to reduce your anxiety and claim power to influence our country in positive, respectful and healthy ways?