Most compelling to me about our new administration is not the brain washing effort on all sides of the political spectrum to reduce each other to enemies, but the way in which our collective brains have been robbed of the ability to think of anything else. This represents nothing short of trauma, with all of its emotional trappings and symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
What is PTSD? It is the aftermath of a traumatic event, one so jarring that, it profoundly affects the psyche’s ability to function. Sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, helplessness, hopelessness, and unabated fear are all common symptoms. Untreated, PTSD may become permanently disabling.
In terms of the recent inauguration, there can be a fine line between the feelings that go with the need for a reaction/response and the enduring effects of PTSD. PTSD occurs when the scope of what has happened and its consequences are so off the charts of whatever we consider normal, that our minds are temporarily robbed from the ordinary and transplanted into the extraordinary or unimaginable. For example, it may be stressful enough for a person to accept that Donald Trump is our president; yet the manner in which he uses his authority and power is incomprehensible.
When I was asked by a therapist friend recently if patients were talking about the Trump presidency in my office, my immediate answer was “Of course.” When she asked how I respond to them, I initially drew a blank. Was there a right answer here? Then, I told her that mostly I listen to what patients have to say. Just sit and listen. After the call, I wondered if there was more I should be doing. It bothered me not to know what.
A month later, I am convinced that listening is the right thing to do, not because it is all I can do, but it is the clinical way to respond to PTSD. After a traumatic experience, it is important to talk. At the Veteran’s Administration (VA), vets talk about their experiences at war. In my office, patients express their feelings about the new president, his new administration, the people in it, and the choices the administration is making. They talk about their own personal experiences in this collective trauma and sometimes bring up previous traumatic experiences that this administration reminds them of.
PTSD is avoided by processing trauma and eventually integrating it into one’s life. It is when the trauma is denied and not processed that it wreaks havoc with our brains, robbing them of the ability to sleep, concentrate and attend to anything else. The antidote is not to numb out, sleep, drink or isolate. It is to talk to someone who can listen, and empathize until it becomes a shared experience; one that at first seems too dark and intangible to venture through alone, but once shared, and viewed through different prisms and perspectives, generates “a therapy” — a healthy way to react and respond.