Traumatized By Trump? Try This
How a political psychiatrist cured her Trump Stress Disorder — and why you should too.
To be effective politically, I exposed myself to what I hate most.
Immediately following the 2016 election, it didn’t seem I’d recover. For two full weeks I couldn’t listen to or watch the news because anytime I heard “President-Elect Donald Trump” I felt physically ill. Even my beloved New York Times sent me reeling.
I gradually re-introduced media until I could skim news headlines and take NPR in five-minute bursts. Still, I couldn’t face Inauguration Day. I silenced the radio and television, closed my phone’s news apps, and hunkered down with a book.
But I forgot to turn off my digital notifications.
Moments after the swearing-in, my phone buzzed as half a dozen alerts cascaded across the screen: “Donald J. Trump is now the 45th president of the United States.” Overcome, I ran to the bathroom and threw up.
The moment clarified an important reality: Politics can make us sick.
Today I’m a full-time activist and writer dedicated to removing Trump from office and building a progressive future. I read the New York Times and Washington Post every day. I tolerate Trump’s speeches and press conferences. I watch Fox News and scan Breitbart to keep tabs on the Far Right. And I chat with Trump voters without getting triggered.
This change happened by design, not chance. Since 2017 I’ve intentionally and painfully exposed myself to Donald Trump and his propaganda machine to empower myself and be a more effective advocate for change.
You can too.
Politics is emotional
We’re passionate because we care — our strong feelings drive our activism and make us better citizens. We use anger to battle injustice, courage to confront danger, hope to endure adversity, love to unify for change, and urgency to overcome inertia.
Emotions are a normal and healthy part of political engagement, but they can also lead us astray. Feelings become a problem when they keep us from effectively advocating for the causes we care about or threaten our psychological, social, or physical well-being.
Emotion in the Age of Trump
Since 2016, when a reality TV host shocked the nation by winning the presidency, many Democrats have suffered from what I think of as “Trump Stress Disorder” (TSD) (or, as Republicans mockingly call it, “Trump Derangement Syndrome”).
Some will bristle at the notion that anyone’s aversion to Trump can be extreme enough to qualify as a “disorder,” but let’s be honest. We Democrats can be emotionally unhinged when it comes to Trump — not because of some flaw in ourselves, but because his election traumatized us.
Trump triggers us because he is triggering. His blatant corruption and authoritarian tendencies set off red-alert warnings in our nervous systems. How can we stay calm when he brags about assaulting women, spews racist idiocies, and praises alleged sex traffickers, foreign dictators, and White nationalists?
Panic, fear, and anger are the only sensible ways to react to Trump, right?
Wrong. They aren’t. At least not if we want to stop Trump from inflicting more damage on the world.
Physician, cure thyself
As a psychiatrist, I knew my mental state under TDS was untenable from day one. When I was triggered by Trump, the parts of my brain I like most — my frontal lobes — weren’t working. And that meant I couldn’t plan effectively, communicate clearly, or act strategically. I was useless to The Resistance.
To be an effective agent of change (and save democracy for my kids), I needed to cure myself with a strong dose of my own medicine: Exposure therapy.
I wasn’t looking forward to it. Exposure therapy is one of psychiatry’s most powerful non-pharmaceutical interventions, but it comes at a price. Originally developed for the treatment of phobias and now used extensively for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), it involves intentionally subjecting people to increasingly large doses of an offending stimulus until they can tolerate it without becoming emotionally destabilized. The patient’s suffering is reduced over the long-term, but in the short-term it can be excruciating.
Treating my TSD meant exposure to large doses of Trump. Ouch.
Confronting my Kryptonite
I started small. A few minutes of Rachel Maddow here. Micro doses of the New York Times there. A single scroll through my Facebook feed and a brief peek at Twitter.
At first I was amazed by how agitated I felt after just a few moments of Trump news. My pulse quickened and my blood pressure rose at the sight of the President’s name in a headline. I’d slam my iPad shut or yell at Wolf Blitzer or say mean things to those lovely people on NPR.
But I knew I had to resist those fight-or-flight impulses. Exposure therapy works through habituation, the natural process of becoming physiologically accustomed to things in our environment. Habituation can’t happen when we flee the stimulus or fight back. To get better, I had to force myself to sit with Trump in all his awfulness until my body stopped treating his presence as a mortal threat. So I did.
A smirking photograph of Donald Trump set me off, so I counted to 10 while looking at it as my breathing slowed and the tension in my muscles abated.
When Trump was on the TV raving about The Wall, I focused on meditative breathing — in and out, in and out (honestly, sometimes it felt like childbirth) — until I no longer cared that his garbled syntax reminded me of my dementia patients.
Over time, things got better. Just as an an arachnophobe goes from looking at a tiny daddy long legs in a jar across the room to holding a live tarantula in their open palm, I went from barely being able to hear Trump’s name to watching his pseudo-press conferences, listening to his speeches, and checking out OAN.
From Trumpo-phobe to activist
For me, this wasn’t just about easing my own suffering. It was about doing more in the world.
A major reason I tackled my TSD was so I could have persuasive conversations with Trump supporters. I knew I couldn’t influence others if I flew off the handle every time they said something positive about the president. I had to change before I could ask them to.
So in addition to exposing myself to Trump, I started exposing myself to Trump voters. On Facebook. On airplanes. At public events. By reaching out rather than fighting or fleeing, I gradually developed the ability to listen — really listen — to what they said and empathize with their fears. I found unifying common ground and felt compassion despite our differences. I understood their attraction to this president who repelled me and saw beyond policy differences to our shared humanity.
We sometimes fear if we shed our strong anti-Trump feelings, our commitment to change will weaken. But the exposure therapy didn’t affect my political views — intellectually, I was still opposed to Donald Trump and passionate about fighting for economic, social, and environmental justice. The difference was now I remained calm and centered enough to converse and connect with my political opposites.
Dealing with my TDS allowed me to become the activist I am today, working for change through persuasive dialogues across the political spectrum. Instead of fighting or shaming or ostracizing, I now spend each day influencing how others view the world and helping fellow progressives do the same.
You can recover, too
Curing your Trump Stress Disorder with exposure therapy doesn’t require professional expertise. All it takes is commitment, patience, and regular practice. Instead of running away, start moving towards those who trigger you (Trump and his supporters) and your mind and body will do the rest. Yes, it will be uncomfortable, but isn’t saving democracy worth it?
Often when I tell my story to fellow progressives, they respond with horror: “I couldn’t do that! I’d lose my mind!” The irony is that exposure therapy can stop the suffering many Democrats have felt since November 8, 2016, bringing greater peace of mind.
It’s time to heal the emotional trauma of the last four years. Let’s cure ourselves of TSD so together we can do the most important work of all: Inviting Trump supporters to join the movement for progressive change. The future of the nation depends on it.
About the Author
Dr. Karin Tamerius is the founder of Smart Politics, a former psychiatrist, and an expert in political psychology who specializes in teaching progressives how to communicate more productively and persuasively with people across the political spectrum. Email her at: email@example.com.