How to cope with politically-induced trauma
I hope it’s been an enjoyable holiday weekend for those of you who are not working, relaxing, and recharging on this day, Labor Day, on which we in fact honor all workers.
Now let’s talk about how we keep from going crazy, shall we?
Political anxiety is increasingly discussedamong mental health professionals, describing the impact our national politics has on many Americans. But, as Dr. Seth Norrholm, a translational neuroscientist and psychologist, told me in a fascinating interview on my SiriusXM program (which you can listen to here or read the transcript), the vast majority of us have actually experienced a kind of collective PTSD—a mass trauma induced by authoritarianism and the threat to democracy, not to mention the aftermath of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and a government that initially allowed people to die.
How do we cope with all that? I don’t subscribe to the idea that people need to drop out of politics, pulling themselves away in order to save their psyches. Sure, everyone needs a break now and then and time to recharge—like on Labor Day weekend! But the stakes are too high for any of us to simply cut off what’s happening in the world.
In fact, staying deeply involved may be what saves your mind, as some studies even suggest. I know that’s the case for many of you. But I hear too many people talking about dropping out, so I think it’s important to refocus on this issue once in a while, especially as we’re headed further into a political season—or, I should say, as every season is a political season!
People often ask me how I cope with being in the thick of madness because of the work that I do. But they don’t realize they already partially answered the question.
Indulge me for a bit as I relay an anecdote from way back in 2004—and actually one from well after that, as well as one from well before.
On the day before the 2004 presidential election, I sat in a meeting with other political talk radio hosts, as well as producers and other programming professionals. I’d only been a political host on live talk radio—on Sirius Satellite Radio before the merger with XM Satellite Radio—for a little over a year.
Satellite radio, only a couple of years old at that time, was the wild, wild west, as we were writing the rules as we went along. We had few, if any, commercial breaks (compared to terrestrial radio’s ad breaks every few minutes). We were able to engage in discussions and monologues and interview subjects for long, uninterrupted periods. And since we were not regulated by the FCC, we were able to say whatever the hell we wanted. Yes, including dropping F-bombs if we felt like it.
A long-time radio producer in the meeting said that whatever happens tomorrow, some of you will become therapists for many of your listeners who call in, depending on which side of the aisle you and your audience are on and who wins the election.
That weighed on me and was something I hadn’t thought about. At the time, I was on Sirius’s LGBT channel—the first ever and only LGBT 24/7 live radio channel—OutQ, hosting a live afternoon political talk show. And George W. Bush, struggling in his re-election bid after the reckless Iraq War began wearing on Americans, decided to run on passing a federal marriage amendment, energizing the Christian nationalist base. This was a direct assault on gay and lesbian families, horrifying many during the election campaign.
The day after John Kerry lost and Bush narrowly won, I went on the air, and the phones lit up. The first call was from a woman in rural Oklahoma, a lesbian who had a long-time partner and children. She had to pull over to the side of the road to cry. As bad as it was for all of us, I realized how much more terrible it was for a lesbian family in Oklahoma.
Being there to listen to this woman and many more who called in—guiding a conversation and being able to connect people across the country—was an enormous privilege. And it proved to be my own kind of therapy. It allowed me to calm myself, to escape in a way, even while actually being deeply immersed in it. That may sound contradictory, but focusing on what others were experiencing and working through ways to move forward—both with regard to politics but also with regard to personal grief and anguish—helped me stay focused and, quite frankly, helped me stay sane.
It also obligated me to find and communicate the kinds of facts that would help offer real hope that we could overcome the current state.
Fast forward to 2016. By then, I’d moved to the newly-branded Progress, the larger progressive politics platform on the now-merged company, SiriusXM. At a similar meeting the day before the election—but with only liberal hosts and producers—someone half-heartedly said the same thing that was said at the 2004 meeting, regarding maybe having to be a therapist on the air depending on what happened in the election.
But really, everyone was so sure Donald Trump would lose that it wasn’t seriously considered. Someone mentioned that I was the only one still there from 2004 and knew what it was like. I think we all pondered it for a moment and laughed it off.
Then the unthinkable happened. On Election Night, I knew what people the next day would be feeling. I tweeted out at 3 a.m. something to the effect of "we’ll organize and fight." Of course, I was as terrified as anyone else. And the next day on the show was like 2004 on steroids, with a great many people pulling over to the side of the road to cry. That went on for days and weeks. We grieved, but we soon marched and organized.
What kept me together, once again, was being there to help guide others. It made me think back to the darkest days of the AIDS crisis in the late ‘80s and my active involvement in ACT UP, the AIDS activist group that engage in civiil disobedience and direct action. With the devastation and death of so many we loved all around us, becoming actively involved in ACT UP helped me channel my sorrow and anger into action and to connect with many others having the same experience.
Again, I know many of you get this. But I think we all know a lot of people who become exhausted and burned out—and that might include some of you—and decide to drop out. Who could blame them? We are living in very scary times and have experienced mass trauma—a threat to democracy and our way of life. It’s a condition we thought would be lifted in 2020 with the election of Joe Biden. But instead, it’s only intensified.
Self-care is paramount for all of us. That might include yoga, knitting, sports, baking, gardening, kayaking—whatever you need to do. It’s important to have some activity or experience that helps you relax and relieve the stress of politically-induced trauma. It should be about relaxing and recharging, however, and not about breaking away entirely. Not only, as I said, are the stakes too high, but as Dr. Norrholm told me, the only true cure for this mass PTSD is seeing justice done—feeling safe because we know that people are being punished in one form or another and democracy will be saved.
We are seeing that justice is just beginning to play out now, as Trump and his co-conspirators face many criminal trials. We must underscore to ourselves that we helped make that happen—pressuring lawmakers, the media, and the government and educating one another, as well as many others we’ve been able to enlighten, many of whom were frightened and looking for answers.
That process itself has helped us cope—connecting with others, informing and empowering many more, and helping to alleviate fear by presenting facts and focusing on a hopeful future.
I do believe, having come this far, that hope is very important. We’ve been able to make enormous change, not only in our capacity as Americans in this democracy but also as humans, since the beginning of time. We can’t lose that, and we must always be aware of what we’ve been able to achieve. It will keep us sane, alleviate mass stress, and allow us to see the better days ahead.