How to Cope with the “Trump Effect”

First, a disclaimer: the “Trump Effect” is not a real thing. Yes, many pundits have used that expression lately, mostly to discuss a change in custom or a new social meme that the commentator wants to attribute to our current president’s unorthodox behavior. As satisfying as it might feel to blame our social ills on a “crazy” leader, Trump did not cause our current cultural crisis. He’s just one pimple in our country’s most recent acne breakout.

As the 2016 campaigns, primaries, and debates waged on, I came to believe that something was seriously amiss in this country. I’ve lived through negative campaigns before. Remember the swift boat vets? Remember Willie Horton? Still, this felt different. Exaggerations became lies; insults became threats. I felt as though the country’s id was trying harder than usual to rip a hole in our traditional veneer of civility.

Many blame Trump for rewriting the rules of the political game. Yet, without the support of the expanding “alt-right”, coupled with the news media’s perverse thirst for shocking sound bites and provocative images, the rules would not have changed so quickly or drastically. People cheered the lies; they applauded the threats. They watched the petty, substance-free debates and the sordid speeches with the zeal of dogfight fans.

I realize that my account of these developments is deeply influenced by the view from my partisan bubble. Many who reside in the opposing bubble might describe Trump’s campaign and election as a long-overdue toppling of the corrupt, elitist politicos who have trampled the rights of “real” Americans for decades. They chant the MAGA slogan without a hint of irony. They argue that, to keep us safe and atop the global hierarchy, our leader must be tough on immigration, tough on crime, and tough on all those who would violate our precious American values – values that include unfettered free enterprise, a right to tote weaponry, a common language, respect for Christian values, and a right to believe whatever you want to believe, evidence be damned.

As you might surmise from my tone, I disagree with that narrative. I also feel a strong impulse to contradict and condemn those views when I hear them. I lately have realized, however, that our current cultural divide has much less to do with differing political or economic ideology than with our evolutionary legacy of tribal malevolence. Contradicting and condemning only intensifies that malevolence and widens the divide between bubbles. So, instead of debating the merits of this or that person or policy, I will describe the “Trump Effect” in terms of my own emotional and behavioral responses to the recent election and its aftermath – responses that I suspect many of you also have experienced, some more intensely than others.

Another disclaimer might be appropriate here. I am a white male who grew up in Los Angeles during the 1960s with a loving family and plenty to eat. I have deep empathy for the suffering of others, but I can never truly know what it feels like to be profiled, denied services, or shot at because of my skin color, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. I acknowledge that many in our society are struggling with higher levels of anxiety than mine due to the current political climate. By writing about my own experiences and describing some coping strategies, I hope to encourage everyone who is suffering, whether mildly or severely, to persevere. Have hope.

As the recent political circus unfolded, I suffered in three primary ways:

1.  Increased Anxiety

Starting around October 2016, I began feeling increasingly anxious. Anxiety makes me fidget. It keeps me awake at night. It drives me to overeat. Positive thoughts become scarcer and more easily overpowered by negative ones. Tears come more quickly. Some researchers have suggested that anxiety evolved in humans as an unconscious “deescalating strategy”, which kicks in when we’re confronted with a perceived threat that we cannot immediately neutralize (Price, 2003). Sounds about right.

2.  Increased Obsession with Political News and Information

I began watching YouTube videos of the persistently incredulous newscasters on CNN and MSNBC and the unconscionable spinners on Fox News. I began reading not just relevant tweets, but the comments to those tweets (something I had previously resisted). I even subscribed to @realDonaldTrump so I would not miss the daily melodrama. Many researchers have suggested that people formulate their internal ethics primarily by observing others, including people depicted in media. At least one study suggested that a negative news environment will perpetuate negative “social energy” in a community, while a positive news environment will perpetuate positive social energy (Yao and Yu, 2016). I wonder which came first: Donald Trump modeling aggressive and unethical behavior or our collective negative social energy that supports and encourages that behavior. Either way, the negative news environment has most certainly harshed my social calm.

3.  Increased Hostility Toward Opposing Views (and Toward Those Who Hold Them)

I found myself seduced by the burgeoning tribalism (and found the title of my first novel). It felt good to dismiss the “other side” as ignorant or mentally challenged. It felt good to nod in unison with my like-minded friends and family. It eased my feelings of impotence to express my outrage and disbelief. It felt good to identify with the rational folks and ridicule those living in their misinformed, misguided bubble. It didn’t take long to realize, however, that my in-group was just as bubble-icious as all the out-groups. This in-group/out-group dynamic has been with us since the first drum circle. Some evolutionary psychologists call this behavior “parochial altruism” – the idea that it served our genetic survival to simultaneously develop aggressiveness toward the out-group and cooperativeness toward the in-group (Rusch, 2014). Unfortunately, as humanity becomes more globally interconnected and interdependent, parochial altruism becomes increasingly problematic. At the risk of hyperbole, our species will not survive many more centuries if we do not find a way to co-exist as one global in-group.

HOW I COPE WITH THE TRUMP EFFECT

Each of us has a reservoir of untapped resiliency. Here’s how I attempted to tap mine:

Challenge Negative Thoughts

Some of you might recognize this approach as a mainstay of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). The procedure is relatively simple, but can be quite difficult to apply consistently, especially for those struggling with intense anxiety, depression, or trauma. The process boils down to this: (i) identify your negative thoughts (which generally arise due to one or more cognitive distortions); and (ii) neutralize those thoughts by refuting them and replacing them with positive thoughts.

Here are some negative thoughts that I experienced during the past few months related to our political and social upheaval, plus a note about which cognitive distortion gave them rise:

  1. “The world is going to hell.” (Catastrophizing.)
  2. “Anyone who voted for Trump must be an idiot!” (Emotional reasoning and labeling.)
  3. “Everyone hates me” (a thought I had after reading comments to one of my posts). (Filtering and overgeneralizing.)
  4. “I should have seen this coming/spent less time online/exercised more/eaten better/worked harder/spent less money/controlled myself/reacted more maturely/smiled/avoided that topic/helped that person/picked up my trash/etc.” (Should statements; i.e., ‘should-ing’ on yourself.)
  5. “I’m a worthless loser” (a thought I had after posting an article that contained a typo). (All-or-nothing thinking.)

Once you begin watching your thoughts, you realize that the Buddhist notion of the “monkey mind” quite aptly describes our frenetic, chaotic thinking. Yet, identifying our negative thoughts is not enough. We must also challenge and change them if we want to mitigate the damage they cause. Here is a mnemonic to help you remember a simple approach to changing your negative thoughts: “Nasty Feelings are Deeply Rooted”.

     N = Notice (or Negative) – notice that you are having a negative thought.

     F = Feelings – identify the feelings that accompany the thought.

     D = Distortion – identify the cognitive distortion that underlies the thought.

     R = Rational (or Reframe) – reframe the negative thought into a rational, positive one.

Here is how I applied that process to my thought, “anyone who voted for Trump must be an idiot”:

Notice/Negative. Perhaps as a survival adaptation, our brains have evolved a penchant for tossing a negative notion onto the track of an otherwise pleasant thought train, generally resulting in unpleasant feelings (Wenzlaff, 2002). These intrusive negative thoughts are commonplace and quite difficult to notice. Journaling can help, as can regular meditation. At the very least, take a few moments each day to ask yourself, “hey self, any negative thoughts yanking us around today?” By attending in that way to my growing anxiety, I came to realize that my negative thoughts, including my thought about Trump supporters, indeed were yanking my chain.

Feelings. Once you spot a negative thought, it helps to recognize the feelings that preceded or accompany the thought. When I had the thought “anyone who voted for Trump must be an idiot,” I realized that I was feeling a combination of anxiety and frustration, which are variations of two of our “root” emotions, fear and anger. There is no correct answer for this step; any feelings you identify are valid. The purpose of this step is less about labeling the feelings correctly and more about acknowledging the strong reciprocal relationship between thoughts and feelings. Uncomfortable feelings engender negative thoughts, and negative thoughts perpetuate and exacerbate those feelings.

Distortion. The thought “anyone who voted for Trump must be an idiot” covers two kinds of cognitive distortions: emotional reasoning and labeling. We reason emotionally when we reach a conclusion based not on evidence, but rather because it “feels right”. We label when we generalize about a person’s character (or our own) based on one quality or incident. I have a “gut feeling” that Trump is not only dishonest and self-serving, but also profoundly unqualified to serve as president. My feelings about Trump might be true, but my thought about the mental capacity of Trump supporters was not based on evidence, but solely on my feelings and on a ballot cast in one election.

Rational/Reframe. Once you identify a negative thought and consider whether it arose from distorted thinking, you already have engaged your prefrontal cortex, which makes reframing the thought fairly easy. For instance, realizing that my thought about the idiocy of Trump voters stemmed from my tendency to negatively label people who hold differing opinions about topics that “feel” important to me, it was a simple matter to come up with this alternative thought: “I do not agree with, nor understand, the choice made by Trump voters; but the reasons we vote the way we do are abundant and varied, and dismissing those who disagree with me as ‘idiots’ will only create more division and less understanding.” This reframed thought, albeit a bit overwrought, led me to my second coping tactic: communicating calmly and rationally.

Practice Calm, Rational Communication

During one of my more intense discussions with a friend (“what the hell is wrong with …, don’t they understand that…”), I realized that, although I experience plenty of calm, rational interactions with other people each day, many of my interactions are laced with emotion. Since negative feelings engender negative thoughts, consciously practicing calm, rational communication can strengthen our ability to catch and reframe those thoughts.

In order to practice this style of communication, I decided to strike up a calm, rational Twitter conversation with our president. I understand that President Trump likely will never read one of my tweets. And, even if he were to read them, he hasn’t shown any inclination to change his thoughts or behaviors. Nevertheless, the exercise has provided me with excellent practice, since it would be difficult to find a more formidable foe of calm, rational discourse than our president. I am also able to model the kind of discourse that I believe would be much more effective in changing hearts and minds than the angry vitriol currently dominating our airwaves and coffee shops.

Here are my responses to some of President Trump’s recent tweets, just to give you a flavor of my approach. Please be kind in your assessment; I found it particularly difficult to craft a cogent argument in 140 characters.

 

 

In re-reading my responses, I realize that I have more work to do. My messages are calm and rational, but still embody more criticism than discussion. Perhaps I should ask more questions. Perhaps I should try harder to balance my critiques with some encouragement. So long as I maintain my primary goal – to generate my message calmly and rationally, rather than emotionally or reactively – I still believe the practice will be beneficial.

Recently, I sent a calm and rational response to one of Senator Al Franken’s tweets in the aftermath of the Charlottesville violence and the subsequent criticism of President Trump’s pronouncements on the matter. This was a difficult one for me to write. I wholeheartedly agree with Senator Franken. Yet, part of this practice is recognizing emotionally charged messages and responding to them calmly and rationally. A condemnation, however warranted, is still an emotional communication, which rarely changes minds or advances an issue.  Here’s my exchange with Senator Franken:

While the content of my response is true, the implication might be misleading. I’m not suggesting that Senator Franken should not take a stand against fascism or bigotry. On the contrary, I think we all should stand against any belief system that would unfairly marginalize or disadvantage another human. The point I’m trying to promote is that labeling another as “bad” usually serves only to stoke animosity and to kill any chance of a fruitful discussion.

This is not an easy practice.

FINAL THOUGHTS

All of us feel anxious. Anxiety is one of the most universal of human emotions. Periodic or mild anxiety rarely does lasting harm. Prolonged or traumatic anxiety, however, can be painful and destructive. I urge anyone who is experiencing troubling feelings, including the symptoms I described above (i.e., restlessness, sleeplessness, uncontrollable soothing behaviors, depression, frequent crying, etc.), to ask for help. Stress-related mental struggles respond quite well to current mental health protocols. You need not suffer.

Remember, too, that thoughts and feelings feed one another like heavenly diners wielding their long spoons. Pausing in calm reflection often can highlight that cognitive/emotional connection long enough to permit a rational intervention and prevent any real damage. You are not your thoughts; you have thoughts. You are not your feelings; you experience feelings. And, best of all, President Trump does not control your thoughts or your feelings.

Be well.

References:

Chodron, T. (1999). Taming the monkey mind. Leicestershire, UK: Tynron Press.

Edwards, T. (1927). Dictionary of thoughts: Being a cyclopedia of laconic quotations from the best authors of the world, both ancient and modern. New York, NY: Cassell Publishing Company.

Moser, D. K. (2007). “The rust of life”: Impact of anxiety on cardiac patients. American Journal of Critical Care, 16(4), 361-369.

Price, J. S. (2003). Evolutionary aspects of anxiety disorders. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 5(3), 223–236.

Rusch, H. (2014). The evolutionary interplay of intergroup conflict and altruism in humans: a review of parochial altruism theory and prospects for its extension. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 281(1794), 20141539. http://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2014.1539

Wenzlaff, R. M. (2002). Intrusive thoughts in depression. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 16(2), 145-159. Retrieved from https://tcsedsystem.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.tcsedsystem.idm.oclc.org/docview/89170506?accountid=34120

Yao, Z., & Yu, R. (2016). The spreading of social energy: How exposure to positive and negative social news affects behavior. PLoS ONE, 11(6), e0156062. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0156062