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OPINION: Trump and Trauma

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OPINION: Trump and Trauma

By Andy Weisskoff, LCSW

On the morning after Donald Trump’s election a feeling of dread fell on me that lingers still. My wife Carol was afraid to leave the house that whole day. It’s a slow process, but one thing that helped us begin to recover our equilibrium was booking flights to DC for the Women’s March on Washington, scheduled for the day after inauguration. But I continue to wonder why the election has affected so many of us so deeply. I’m a psychotherapist in private practice in Sebastopol. I work with adults with trauma histories using the eye movement therapy EMDR. From that perspective, here’s what I think has been going on in many of us and for months now.

The theory behind trauma treatment is that circumstances in the present activate memories of dangerous situations from the past. When the memories are activated, the body launches a defense for the new threat: the fight/flight/freeze response. While it’s important to pay attention to the threat, sometimes the triggering is so intense that we are unable to think clearly enough to mobilize a plan. 

It seems the dominant set of traumatic memories awakened by Trump, in those of us emotionally activated, are about being bullied. The dread I feel when I think about Trump is just like the dread I felt walking alone to elementary school, knowing the bully was waiting for me along the path. For my wife, her childhood memories of two bullying fathers, the first a sexual predator, are once again fresh and alive.

Trump has threatened individuals, like Hillary Clinton, with jail for crossing him. He’s threatened millions of not-yet-citizens with deportation. He’s threatened populations of other nations with nuclear annihilation. For any of us with a history of being bullied, Trump’s body language and spoken threats remind us of those experiences. 

Trump is also a self-declared sexual predator. There are reports in the media of frank sexual assault, including girls as young as thirteen. Whether or not these reports are accurate, they are reminders of how men have forever gotten away with horrendous behavior, some of it upon our own bodies.

When the nervous system gets activated, it can feel as if the prior attacks are happening to us right now. The purpose of trauma therapy is to calm down the nervous system enough to examine the memories that are triggering this intense emotion. Though there may be similarities between what we’ve experienced in the past and what we see happening now, the situations are often quite different. Various therapies, including EMDR, help clients examine these differences, especially the differences between current and prior resources to combat the threat. For example, it may be true that a bully in the form of Donald Trump is once again in our midst. But this time, instead of being on our own, my wife and I will be facing him down accompanied by a million of our closest friends.

Often one or two sessions of EMDR can help soothe the central nervous system enough to allow this examination of current resources versus past resources. For people addressing childhood trauma for the first time, therapy takes longer. But EMDR is notorious for being the quickest route to recovery from trauma. You can read more about it on my website, andyweisskoff.com, or on the website of the EMDR International Association, EMDRIA.org. You can also read an insider account of EMDR by my wife Carol E. Miller in her new memoir Every Moment of a Fall, available at Copperfield’s. (And no, I was not her therapist!)

There are many EMDR therapists in Sonoma County, ones who accept a variety of health insurances including MediCal. More people are eligible for MediCal, and MediCal provides more and better coverage, than prior to the Affordable Care Act. Though Trump has threatened to dismantle the ACA, that will take some doing and some time. In the meantime, MediCal recipients should take advantage of what’s available.

To find a therapist who accepts your insurance, you can run a search at psychologytoday.com. Psychology Today is a listing service paid for by therapists who advertise their availability on the site. You can search for therapists by location, specialty (including EMDR), by age group, languages spoken, and insurances covered. If you don’t find what you’re looking for you can call your insurance directly. MediCal clients should call Beacon Health Strategies at (855) 765-9703 since Beacon manages the mental health portion of MediCal in Sonoma County.