It’s still surreal—horribly surreal—and we aren’t about to wake up.
The Trump presidency confronts the majority of Americans with a situation that has rapidly degenerated from shock and disbelief to rage and dread. The op-ed page of the New York Times has been reduced to perpetual teeth-grinding. Faint signs of hope from Donald Trump’s lips have proved to be illusions, the vagaries of a flimflam artist soaking up adulation for what amounts to a despicable regime. The last slender thread of hope, that the Republican-run Senate will stand up to him, is likely to snap soon.
When there’s no escape, what can you do to survive and remain sane? I’d like to argue that perpetual rage isn’t the answer.
In any situation of maximum stress, a person’s coping skills are severely tested. Stress is maximized whenever three elements are present: repetition, unpredictability, and loss of control. Repetition is supplied by Trump’s constant presence on all media. Unpredictability is at an all-time high, thanks to his policy flip-flops and neck-wrenching mood swings. Loss of control has been mandated by the right wing’s take-no-prisoners, make-no-compromises stance.
Maximum stress can appear harmless on the surface but is potentially lethal underneath. In classic laboratory experiments, mice were placed on electric plates that delivered innocuous shocks at random intervals. The mice had no control; the shocks were repetitive and unpredictable. Within a few days the animals’ immune systems were degraded, they exhibited abnormal behaviors, and some quickly died.
This means, at the very least, that being intensely angry at Trump, the normal response to him, is a form of self-harm. Of course a human being isn’t a 150-pound mouse, and what makes the most difference is that we can cope psychologically with a stress, perceiving and interpreting it in a wide variety of ways. The most obvious proof of this fact lies in the response of Trump supporters who not only don’t regret their vote but would elect him again over Hillary Clinton if given the chance. Their positive interpretation is based on the same news stories (i.e., external stressors) that horrify members of the Resistance.
Since no one doubts that resistance is called for, the trick is to resist and cope at the same time. That’s no mean feat, and I speak as someone who felt my stomach fall to my feet when the House passed their heartless, dishonest health care bill this week. Coping skills are real things, and it’s time to embrace this fact; rage and dread have already lost their utility, and exhaustion is widespread.
So what coping skills will actually work? Here are seven ways to climb down from Trump outrage:
1.Catch your negativity early.
Once you are sunk deep in gloom or anxiety, it’s more likely that you will find it hard to lift yourself up. So be on the lookout for the first signs of negativity. As soon as you spot a mood shift toward irritability, anger, frustration, worry, or pessimism, pause immediately. Take a few deep breaths, and center yourself. Let the emotion pass, and get yourself somewhere quiet and pleasant, such as going outdoors for a walk.
2. Avoid external stressors.
Dark thoughts usually occur in reaction to a new stress, and if you can, you should get away from the stressor, whether it’s a negative person, a tense political argument, or bad news on TV. Dark thoughts set in when they are reinforced, so don’t let anyone or anything reinforce your bad mood if you have the choice to avoid it.
3. Develop a supportive inner dialogue.
About 75-80% of people talk to themselves in their heads, and a small minority even hear inner conversations. When the voice in your head starts saying things, pause for a moment and say to the voice, “I don’t need this. It doesn’t serve me.” Repeat until the mental voice stops.
4. Keep company with positive, optimistic people.
We all have friends and family members who are downers, and the current political situation worsens the effect. Some people insist upon seeing worst-case scenarios, and in general they indulge their gloom rather than taking helpful action. Often sheer inertia keeps us from walking away; in the Resistance it’s hard to avoid becoming part of the despair. But you will be better off finding people who can contribute to changing things while not dwelling on the dark side of things. Realistically, we’ve heard the bad news a thousand times already.
5. Try a “thought replacement” strategy.
A technique that lies at the heart of cognitive therapy (an approach that addresses thoughts and beliefs rather than feelings) is to question negative thoughts by asking if they are actually true. For example, if you begin to feel frustrated and think, “What’s the use? Things never work out,” these thoughts are tested against reality. You say to yourself, “Actually, things sometimes do work out. I’ve succeeded by persevering. This might be one of those situations.” The secret here is to be specific and honest with yourself. When any negative thought arises, you challenge its validity. Instead of “The worst possible people are in charge,” you replace that thought with “No one’s all bad. Some good people still have influence. I’m not helping myself by exaggeration and self-pity.” Once you get accustomed to a thought-replacement approach, you’ll be impressed by its effectiveness. Moods follow thoughts, which is why it does no good to ruin your mood with dismal thinking. In the face of the atrocious repeal of Obamacare, I replaced the thought, “Oh my God, the ship is sinking” with “There’s a long way to go yet. The right people are in opposition. The public will have its say. We’re barely into the first act.”
6. Develop being centered and detached.
Being detached can be a positive state; it’s not the same as being indifferent or surrendering. Instead, you are centered inside yourself, which allows you to view situations as a witness/observer, without being emotionally rattled. Detachment develops naturally through the regular practice of meditation, because once you experience the centered, quiet, unshakable level of your mind, you easily learn how to return there at will.
7. Get “sticky” emotions to move.
Negative feelings have a mind-body connection, which you can feel physically. After a bout of getting angry or crying, it takes a while before your body settles down. This is due to various hormones, the stress response, and other biochemicals that do not clear immediately. You can help the clearing process by various means:
- Taking deep steady breaths- Lying down and resting- Walking outside- “Toning,” the technique of letting spontaneous sounds arise as they will (low groans, moans, shouts, etc.). This technique is best learned in person to get the knack of it.- Deep, repeated sighs- Discussing your feelings with sympathetic listeners
In the Trump era, everyone needs to have a set of coping skills, and these are among the most useful and effective. Heavy thoughts don’t have to cloud your day. I imagine my recommendations won’t quell the upsurge of anger that sweeps over all of us as the Trump outrage wends its reckless course. But in time we’ll want to preserve our sanity and remain resilient emotionally so that politics doesn’t turn into perpetual torment. When that time comes, the most effective resistance is likely to begin.
Deepak Chopra MD, FACP, founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation, and is Board Certified in Internal Medicine, Endocrinology and Metabolism. He is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians and a member of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists. Chopra is the author of more than 80 books translated into over 43 languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers. His latest books are Super Genes co-authored with Rudy Tanzi, Ph.D. and Quantum Healing (Revised and Updated): Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine.