I am a psychotherapist — specifically, a trauma therapist — in New York City. And in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s win, patients and colleagues told me they felt less safe walking down the street. “I feel like I did after 9/11,” one said. “People on the subways look like they are in mourning,” said another.
I know how they feel. In the days following the election, my mind struggled to focus. I was prone to spontaneous tears. It was difficult to summon the words to speak. I recognized these responses in myself and others as symptoms of traumatic shock, the possible harbingers of post-traumatic stress disorder.
When I finally managed to calm down enough to consider the vehemence of our reactions, I was puzzled. It’s true that Donald Trump’s election to the presidency was alarming for many, particularly given his rageful expressions of xenophobia, sexism, racism, and Islamophobia. But it was a nonviolent event; we hadn’t been physically attacked, nor had we experienced a natural catastrophe.
Or had we?
Does the election “count” as a traumatic event?
The American Psychological Association defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster.” And to many people — especially those in groups that Trump targeted during his campaign — the election result is a truly terrible, even disastrous, event.
The words of my patients over the past few weeks bear this out. One patient, a grad student at NYU, saw the university’s Muslim Students Association prayer room defaced with “TRUMP” graffiti on its front door a day after the election. Another patient told me swastikas had been scrawled on the white boards of Jewish students’ dorm rooms at her college, the New School. Still another patient said to me, "I have four out of six identity markers Trump will target -- Arab, gay, immigrant, and woman. I just don't feel safe walking around anymore."
At least two other patients felt invalidated and hopeless, saying that "we elected a rapist to the presidency," referring to the accusations of sexual assault that several women have brought against him. One patient who was mulling over reporting her assault decided she would not, stating, "How could it matter anymore? No one would believe me now." Another patient forwarded me a social media post of an attack on a trans man, whose perpetrators yelled, "Team Trump," after they scraped his face on the pavement.
It has been a struggle to help my patients cope with the trauma of Trump’s election as I grapple with my own responses. When a patient asked me if she should “just push away the fear and power through,” I realized that this was what I have been doing to manage. And, as psychodynamic clinicians know, repressed emotions inevitably emerge in other forms elsewhere. Outside of the therapy room, I am more anxious, less focused, and more on edge. As a woman, as a first-generation Asian American, and as a parent, I, too, feel more vulnerable in my city. I avoid darker side streets. I worry deeply about the safety of my patients, my children, and my friends. I have trouble sleeping.
This past weekend, a friend alerted me that the train jungle gym in my 6-year-old’s favorite playground had been defaced with swastikas and the words “Go Trump.” When I saw the photos, I burst into tears. Many parents in my neighborhood now have had to explain what a swastika means to our kids.
How to cope: Regain stability, safety, and strength
So what now? How do we respond to these feelings of fear and panic that have been unleashed by the election results? In trauma treatment, when we meet with an individual whose world has been turned upside down by a sexual assault and whose psyche is clouded by shame, we look to help them regain three things: a sense of stability, a sense of safety, and a sense of strength.
Stability: The objective of stabilizing a patient is to calm the hyper-activated body and mind. In crisis, an individual goes into an adrenaline-fueled “fight, flight, or freeze” response. The prefrontal cortex, or the thinking part of the brain, shuts down, and the body takes over. We become like animals under attack by a predator. In the days following Trump’s win, my patients have come in feeling highly anxious and even panicky. To address this, we use stabilization techniques such as deep breathing, confirming the individual’s physical existence in space and reconnecting her with use of her five senses.
These methods have proven effective in calming the body so that the thinking parts of the brain can come back online and the survivor can begin to think and talk about her experience. It is therapeutic to talk about one’s pain, fear, and sense of shame so that such feelings are not isolated in the body; so that the individual is not isolated from others. This reestablishes a survivor’s personhood, which is crucial for someone who has been objectified. Trauma, shame, and isolation are triplets born from the womb of subjugation, and if these feelings are left alone for too long, the resulting loneliness and despair can be mentally — and physically — crushing.
Anyone else who feels destabilized by Trump’s election would be well served to use such grounding techniques to calm the body and mind. Stabilization uses the mindfulness skills of paying close attention to the details of one’s physical and sensory experience in the here and now. By focusing on one’s somatic — or bodily — experience, the mind is forced to slow down and is drawn away from racing thoughts, adrenaline-producing fears, and stressful worst-case scenarios. This promotes greater relaxation and clarifies one’s focus.
Safety: To shore up an individual’s violated sense of safety, we ask a survivor to identify and seek out people and places she trusts, where she is welcomed, comforted, and accepted in spite of all her raw vulnerability. When a survivor has been sexually assaulted, her body becomes a crime scene scarred by a hostile trespasser. Her sense of painful and raw exposure is like that of a post-operative patient in recovery. In this highly sensitized state, she needs to surround herself with people and places that soothe and protect her. She needs interpersonal and physical environments where she can begin to relax without fear of attack, so that her physical and psychic wounds can heal.
The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that 701 incidents of hate crimes directly attributable to Trump’s election have occurred nationwide — it feels like the foundational American promise of equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all citizens is in jeopardy. It’s distressing to the point of horrifying.
Against such news, I have had to work intensively with patients to help them identify where and with whom they feel safe. One patient had to resort to finding mere moments of safety in her day. And yet locating even fleeting moments of safety is crucial. They can keep an individual from falling into a destabilizing panic, where clear thinking is unavailable. For those of us traumatized by hate expressed by Trump and his supporters in the past, present, or — heaven help us — future, finding safety in trusted companions, communities, and spaces is essential. For we all must recruit a sense of safety to maintain the ability to reason, reflect, and make sense of this traumatic election, so that we can act.
Strength: Action requires strength. For a survivor to feel strong enough to act on her own behalf, trauma therapists focus on empowering her sense of self-efficacy. When an individual has been sexually violated, her sense of confidence and subjectivity has been profoundly compromised. The deep shame and shock that can result is demoralizing. It can prevent a survivor from acting or speaking up for herself. In trauma therapy, when a survivor has found enough calm and safety to think again, a therapist will, at every turn, remind her of her strengths. Doing so, we underscore the fact that she is the expert in her own life, capable of making her own decisions — whether to report her crime, to confront her perpetrator, or to share her trauma with others ... or not. This is to help a survivor reclaim her selfhood, with the aim of dispelling the immobilizing experience of objectification.
In these post-election days, my patients have felt their sense of strength sapped by feelings of disappointment, fear, and uncertainty. Some have expressed, “What’s the point in fighting, when there is so much hatred out there against us?” Others have said, “Who’s going to listen to me now? Twelve women accused Trump of sexual assault, and nothing happened.”
To these individuals, and anyone who feels overwhelmed by the aggressive actions of President-elect Trump and his supporters, I recruit my training to say that no act of strength or decision-making — on behalf of oneself or others — is too small. In fact, starting with small acts, such as speaking up for oneself or another at work, or with family or friends, is empowering. Such choices reinforce one’s subjectivity and open up a dialogue with others around what we want, what we need, and what we can work toward together.
For those surprised by how shaken they feel in the aftermath of Trump’s election: These feelings and experiences are valid. Now, as trauma survivors, we must hasten to stabilize ourselves and to create a sense of communal safety by coming together in solidarity. Only then can we take appropriate and mindful action to demonstrate our strength. We must demand that all of our elected officials, from our city council persons to President-elect Trump himself, make every effort to heal our American body politic. The first step should be for our leaders to make sure that every American —particularly those targeted and demonized during this campaign — feels safe and welcome.
Betty Teng is a licensed master social worker and a trauma therapist at a Manhattan hospital. She is also engaged in psychoanalytic training and practice at New York's Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy. In a former life, she was a filmmaker and film editor who has worked on feature films including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Gosford Park. She has received the American Zoetrope Screenplay Award for her script Maestro, Maestro. Along with a master's degree in social work from NYU, Betty holds an MFA from UCLA and a BA from Yale. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.