Thoughtful people from left, right, and center have sounded the alarm over Donald Trump’s behavior in the presidential race. Earlier this month, Andrew Sullivan in the New York Magazine called him an extinction-level event.
Trump’s bullying, compulsive lying (every five minutes or three quarters of the time), narcissism, and Strong Man tactics are well known. He is, as Hillary will continue to describe him, a loose cannon.
Keeping Your Eye on the Threat
Some of the billions of dollars worth of unpaid media attention Trump has gotten is because of his celebrity status, some because of the spectacle he has created with his inflammatory behaviors, some because of the reptilian brain’s dictate to keep your eye on the threat. Unless you are in the minority who approve of Donald Trump, part of tracking him may be your reptilian (survival) brain not wanting to lose sight of the threat.
Unfortunately for those with a background of trauma (which may be half the population), this is not just a simple thing. If there has been too much threat or we have been rendered powerless in the face of overwhelming threat (the definition of trauma), our reptilian brain may go into overload.
Thrown into a Trauma Response: Fight, Flight, Freeze
The problem is that when a new threat echoes themes or characteristics of previous threats, it fires up neural circuits carrying our past traumas and we end up in a state of nervous system activation that takes out of our window of tolerance. (The window of tolerance is just what you might imagine—the range where we can handle what is coming in without freaking out or becoming paralyzed.)
You may already know something about this. You’ve probably heard of not just the fight and flight response, but also freeze. When we go into fight or flight, it’s all systems on red alert. In this highly activated state we can get into a bit of a disorganized frenzy, with our higher cortical centers offline and our emotional brain feeling overwhelmed. If we are lucky, we successfully fight (mobilizing our anger) or flee (a fear response) to escape harm. If we’re not lucky, those impulses are still stuck in us.
When we don’t perceive that we can successfully fight or flee, we freeze. We shut down. This is also called “the immobility response.” It is especially common to those who experienced early trauma (severe abuse or neglect in childhood) but happens even in wild animals when caught by their predator. Just like fight and flight, the freeze response is wired into us.
In the coming election, I am concerned about how these trauma responses may play out.
I am concerned about both the crippling hyperarousal that may take place, the imbalanced stoking of emotion along with contagion effects, but for most of us on the sidelines, I am concerned even more so our systems being tripped into freeze. This, to remind you, happens automatically when our neurology faces what it perceives as insurmountable threat. We could go into a kind of numb denial that makes more possible large-scale horrors we don’t want to see repeated.
The Trump Tornado
On Saturday Night Life, Church Lady called Trump the tangerine tornado. I like this comparison, because Trump is very much like a tornado, as he indiscriminately runs over everything in his path.
Besides being indiscriminate, tornadoes are unstoppable. How many times during this campaign has our attention been riveted to one or another desperate plan to stop Donald Trump? So far, none have succeeded. Traumatic stressors elsewhere in our lives have the same flavor of Unstoppable, whether wild animal, wildfire, attacker, or even a disease that is taking our life.
What I’m suggesting is that for many of us, our reptilian brain perceives him as a traumatizing event.
Applying Lessons From Trauma Therapy
What we can learn from the growing field of trauma therapy can be helpful in our personal and collective response to the threats posed by Trump’s candidacy.
A technique from trauma therapy that is relevant in bringing down hyperarousal is to take a giant threat and shrink it to its actual size or less. So when Jon Steward says that Trump is a man-baby, it helps us not be caught in his larger-than-life image or our larger-than-now terror.
Trump is very good at playing his “Tornado Card.” Like when he said he could shoot somebody and not lose votes. He carefully crafts an image of being indestructible and his election inevitable. We watch horrified as his winning streak continues, but we need to temper that with images of Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton cutting him down to size. He is both a powerful man and, as Stewart and others have pointed out, a thin-skinned little boy.
Most of the time we are simply in a psychological state rather than recognizing the lens we are looking through. I see this in my therapy practice all the time and, truth be told, also in myself.
In the case of the current election, we may feel in a state of high threat and believe it is as dangerous and urgent as the feelings being stirred up. I don’t want to underestimate the very real dangers, but when this level of danger stands on the shoulders of fear already stacked up in our system, it can reach so high that it sends us into overwhelm.
If we can separate the present threat from the mountain it is standing on, we can gain a little bit of control over it. When we see, for example, that that slight boundary violation brought up all of our rage and helplessness from a much bigger boundary violation, it helps us gain perspective and feel a little less victimized.
So if you’ve just seen a clip of Trump bullying someone it might stir up a memory of how you were bullied, or how a controlling, demeaning man created certain feelings you still live with. Acknowledge the similarity, but then ask yourself what is different to help “de-couple” the events. We want to tease them apart so they don’t have that synergistic effect.
The limbic stew here is the distraught state of your nervous system when faced with threat. So the first strategy, above, is to tease out what is not part of the now and bracket it if you can.
The second strategy is to purposefully rehearse facts or images that counterbalance and neutralize the toxicity. So rather than the similarities to other authoritarian states and fear of major catastrophe, we then rehearse other possibilities, like imagining this Emperor With No Clothes being fully exposed and Trump slinking away after being shellacked in the general election.
In other words, don’t just feed your fear but call up what feels good (what in the therapy field we call “resource.”) An overheated nervous system is more vulnerable than a cooled down one.
As the next six months continue this roller-coaster ride, we need to be good caretakers of our nervous systems. Especially for those who’ve already banked a lot of trauma, that is a challenging task. It may mean taking breaks from watching the news, doing things that relax you, hanging out with people who feel safe, and reassuring the parts of you that feel scared.
As we regulate our own nervous systems, we empower ourselves to contain the threat before us.
P.S. Thank you for reading. Please sign up for my blog list if you’d like to receive more. If this piece sparks something in you, you can share your thoughts below. I am going to simplify my life and say thanks in advance for your comments and limit my replies.