In a divided U.S., therapists treating anxiety are hearing the same name over and over: Donald Trump

In these politically polarized times, many anxious Americans are losing sleep, obsessing over news, bickering with friends and raging on social media, according to therapists interviewed across the country. Some experts have even given the unofficial malady a name: Trump Anxiety Disorder.

'Trump Anxiety Disorder' may not be an official diagnosis, but therapists know the symptoms

U.S. President Donald Trump's name comes up an awful lot when Americans discuss their politics-related anxiety with their therapists. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

"Is he gonna blow us all up?"

So inquired one of Elisabeth LaMotte's patients recently, fretting out loud about the volatility of U.S. President Donald Trump's actions during a therapy session at her Washington practice.

It was a rhetorical question — one that predated Trump's threats of a showdown with Iran this week. But if the question wasn't meant in earnest, the politically induced anxiety LaMotte is hearing about from her clients certainly is, says the founder of the D.C. Counselling and Psychotherapy Center.

She refers to it as a "collective anxiety" among patients who feel on edge about how potentially dire the president's decisions could be.

"There is a fear of the world ending," she said. "It's very disorienting and constantly unsettling."

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attends a meeting with a group of Foreign Ministry officials in Tehran on Sunday. Rouhani has warned Trump against provoking his country, while indicating peace might still be possible. (Iranian Presidency Office via Associated Press)

What's been called "Trump Anxiety Disorder" has been on the rise in the months following the election, according to mental-health professionals from across the country who report unusually high levels of politics-related stress in their practices.

And it's maybe not surprising given the relentlessly negative headlines and politically divisive climate.

This week, it was a menacing all-caps Trump tweet warning Iran about potentially historic "CONSEQUENCES." Previously, it was his Supreme Court picks and fears that the legal right to abortion could be overturned, or his immigration policies separating families at the border, or his apparent submission to Russian President Vladimir Putin before a global audience.

From Trump supporters, LaMotte hears about the pain of "feeling socially or familially isolated" for supporting the president's agenda, "even if they don't support his tactics." 

From Trump's detractors, LaMotte has been struck by how much their anxieties resemble those of patients raised by a parent with a personality disorder — someone who would display traits like "grandiosity, excessive attention-seeking and severe lack of empathy."

"Whether it's conscious or not, I think we look to the president of the United States as a psychological parent," she said.

The symptoms

In a 2017 essay for a book co-edited by psychiatrists from Harvard Medical School and the Yale School of Medicine, clinical psychologist Jennifer Panning of Evanston, Ill., called the condition "Trump Anxiety Disorder," distinguishing it from a generalized anxiety disorder because "symptoms were specific to the election of Trump and the resultant unpredictable sociopolitical climate."

Though not an official diagnosis, the symptoms include feeling a loss of control and helplessness, and fretting about what's happening in the country and spending excessive time on social media, she said.

(Trump and his supporters, for their part, have their own term for a malady they see as afflicting only reactionary, anti-Trump progressives: "Trump Derangement Syndrome.")

Panning said intense consumption of media coverage of this presidency is making some people's Trump-related anxiety worse.

"They say they're wondering what's next," she said.

Trump's appointment of one conservative justice to the Supreme Court and the recent nomination of another has left one of her married lesbian clients "significantly concerned about the legitimacy of their marriage in the future," she said.

Researchers say fixating on the news and social media can increase politically induced stress. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Connie Sherman, the manager of a dental practice in San Diego, said she's been sleeping fitfully post-election, constantly checking her phone for the latest headlines in the wee hours.

"When [special counsel] Robert Mueller's indictments news dropped, I wound up staying up in the middle of the night when I should have been sleeping, just thinking about it, just worried for our country," she said.

Stress of supporting Trump

The American Psychological Association has recorded a rise in anxiety in the Trump era, with a five per cent increase (52 to 57 per cent) in politically induced stress levels over a six-month period before, during and after the 2016 election. Overall, stress levels were the highest they've been in a decade, according to the APA.

In an online survey in February 2017, two-thirds of Americans — including most Democrats as well as most Republicans — said they were stressed about the future of the nation. Most of the more than 3,500 people polled blamed the extreme political polarization for their anxiety. There was a strong correlation between stress levels and electronic news consumption.

One symptom of Trump-related anxiety is a fear of what might happen next — including, for example, how his judicial appointments could impact controversial issues like abortion rights. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Some Trump supporters also report feeling more stressed, confiding to therapists that uncivil discourse and attacks on the president were causing them anxiety.

Washington therapist Steve Stosny recounted how an official with the Trump administration came to see him not long ago. At work, the official explained, he felt anxious about his high-pressure job in a highly scrutinized White House. At home, he faced a more personal turmoil: his liberal-leaning family grew to resent him for working for Trump.

"His daughter was starting to hate him," Stosny said. "It was very hard on his spouse, too. The wife couldn't take it anymore. It's tough when one spouse is at war with the children."

The patient eventually left his job, but the damage was already done. The couple began divorce proceedings, Stosny said.

According to the APA, a person's political affiliation can affect their risk of anxiety. About 26 per cent of Republicans polled post-election considered "the political climate" to be a source of stress, compared to 72 per cent of Democrats who felt the same way.

Pro-Trump supporters face off with anti-Trump protesters outside a Trump rally in Phoenix, Ariz., back in August 2017. Some supporters of the president say the judgment and vitriol they're subjected to by Trump opponents stresses them out. (Sandy Huffaker/Reuters)

Jaime Gale, a Trump supporter in Avon Lake, Ohio, often shares her anxiety over politics with her therapist.

"It reminds me of how I felt after 9/11," said Gale, 38, referencing the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., a time when she felt "fear of the unknown and unfamiliar."

"It scared the crap out of me. Now I'm scared of getting pounced on by somebody who doesn't like me because of Trump, just online."

The internet marketing consultant, who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder, backs the president as a champion of border security and a strong steward of the economy. 

But the at-times abusive attacks on Trump's leadership from liberals are hurtful and can make her blood boil.

"I see that rage and anger in other people — I feel it brought out in me, too."

Gale said she once got so drawn into the "vitriol" from liberal critics online that she had an anxiety attack.

Especially "disheartening" to Gale was being labelled a "racist" and "fascist" for supporting the president's policies.

Therapists around the country told CBC they're seeing politically tinged anger and anxiety from patients no matter their political affiliation.

In Columbus, Miss., John Hawkins's LGBTQ clients have opened up about their worries "that their marriages might be voided," while Trump supporters in his sessions worry that liberals are trying to thwart a president who is "doing the best he can."

In Oklahoma City, Kevon Owen, who practises a type of scripture-based psychotherapy known as Christian counselling, said he's "seeing a lot of people anxious about the possibility of war," and has counselled clients to stop submerging themselves in clickbait articles.

In Bardstown, Ky., clinical social worker Roland Gabbert said he's never seen such heavily politicized chatter in his office in his 40-year career.

"Both from people feeling the president is being persecuted and people just beside themselves with worry about the direction of the country."

'In our faces'

Maybe nowhere is the anxiety over politics more deeply felt than in the nation's capital, said Alison Howard, a clinical psychologist in D.C. She said she engages "on a daily basis" with patients "struggling to make sense of what's happening with this president."

"It's in our faces all the time," she said. "People here are living and working in the same city where the pulse of the government is."

In downtown Washington, a lawyer and immigrant from Uganda now working in the Department of Agriculture sat chain-smoking a pack of American Spirit cigarettes. His clinical depression was being "compounded" by a cascade of negative White House-related news, he said. So, he's started to tune it out completely.

Perhaps no place is harder hit by political anxiety than Washington, D.C., a psychologist in the capital tells CBC News. (Mary F. Calvert/Reuters)

"I had to get off social media. I had to stop paying for cable. I started only reading fiction," said the federal employee, who only gave the name Kenneth because he was worried speaking publicly might cause problems for him at his job.

"Maybe I should be talking to a therapist about this."

Asked if he had heard about the president's latest tweet to Iran's leader, he shook his head.

"Seriously, man — don't even tell me."

About the Author

Matt Kwong

Reporter

Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong

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