As Donald Trump’s triumph sparks an increase in hate crimes and throws LGBTI communities and other minority groups around the world into shock and panic, LGBTI psychologist Paul Martin shares his mental health survival guide for use right now.
“So many lenses through which we see the world were blown apart in an instant, which is very powerful,” says Martin of Donald Trump’s shock US election win. “And where people come unstuck is when we’ve got this belief that the significant progress we’ve made must always continue in a linear, positive trajectory towards pure acceptance of others and diversity.”
Martin explains that human evolution historically goes in cycles. “We’ve done this before as humans and we don’t tend to learn,” he says, citing Berlin in the 1920’s as an example of a diverse and open society which was followed by one of the darkest periods in history. “The Germans, after murdering 6 million Jews, learned from that in the short term. They’ve then opened the doors to a million immigrants at great risk to themselves. But in Germany the hard right is still there waiting in the wings, so they’re going to be coming up again.”
The Psychology of the US Election
What we’ve seen during the election campaign in the USA is a “confluence of different issues coming together.” According to Martin, the financial crisis of 2008 destroyed a large part of the American middle class and challenged people’s beliefs about what it means to be American and to be in a democracy. This activated people’s fears and anger about their basic survival needs - the very base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, for those who are familiar with this theory of human motivation.
“And then what happened with Trump is that he gave it a sense of validity – that its ok to say “fuck you” and be a pussy grabbing whatever and the more he ventilated this disgusting stuff, the more it ignited this wave of emotion and irrationality and discrimination and stigmatisation across the board. It didn’t suddenly turn people into racists and homophobes; it gave people a sense of power and freedom to focus their anger and fear on minorities.” And Hillary Clinton became the target of all of this rage. “When our brain perceives something to be unfair, it activates this side of us that we all have and so that provoked the schadenfreude – you see these people taking enormous joy in the suffering of Hillary because of what she represents.”
Effect on the LGBTI Community and Minorities
For those of us in the LGBTI community and for other minorities who have been bullied and harassed as children, the spike in hate crimes since Trump’s win “brings up a lot of the emotional damage that happened, which is like that fear and shame and anxiety and feeling that you don’t have control and all those sorts of things so that all comes bubbling up to the surface very quickly.”
Combine these feelings with confirmation bias - our tendency to filter out facts that don’t support our beliefs and interpret new evidence as confirmation of our existing beliefs, and “the brain goes to a threat mode and it starts scanning the environment for more and more evidence to support the belief that the world isn’t a safe place. If you keep reading the negative articles in your Facebook feed you keep “fuelling the fear, fuelling the anxiety and then it can actually turn into a sense of trauma or really strong anxiety and even panic. Suddenly the security and that sense of belief that society is heading in the right direction gets turned on its head and you’re back to where you started as a little kid.”
Anger vs Acceptance
Martin explains that it is healthy to feel moderate levels of anger and frustration as this compels us to take action. However, it can escalate to a point where it is unhealthy and this can lead to a psychologically damaged victimhood space. Recognising this is important, and then we need to stop, breathe, regain composure and become more strategic about how we react to the current circumstances.
At times like this, says Martin, it’s natural to want to hide out and retreat from the world. Instead, we need to focus on regaining our sense of control. Rather than feeling upset at a level that is unhealthy and trying to change the things we have no control over, we need to ask ourselves some key questions: What do I have control over? What can I directly influence?
When we refuse to accept the reality that Donald Trump is the president-elect, we get into a loop that’s difficult to get out of and we can become very distressed. Because he actually is the president-elect. “And so to get out of that loop we can say ‘well I wish this hadn’t have happened, it would be so much better if this hadn’t happened, but it has happened.’ So it’s important to look at all of the ‘shoulds’ we have in our heads as they inevitably lead to distress. It has happened and now what can we learn from this?”
Depression and Anxiety
Martin warns that while Trump’s win will be activating a lot of anxiety and depression in people, there are healthy ways that we can deal with our stress. “Depression is fueled by hopelessness and low self-worth that needs to be countered by actively challenging these irrational thoughts.”
“When we feel that we’re getting into that highly agitated or anxious state, we need to stop, pause and look at how we can soothe our emotions and regain a sense of composure. Because in that anxiety we can catastrophise that this is going to be apocalyptic and everything is doomed. The people at the pointy end of this will be suffering the most, it’s true, but again, there’s that level of acceptance of that and rather than catastrophising about it, thinking ‘what can I do in my playground that I live and work in that is positive?’”
Focus on What Remains the Same
During this period of significant chaos and change, Martin stresses the importance of focusing on what remains the same rather than what is different. “This includes that the minds and hearts of millions of Americans and Australians that have become more accepting towards LGBTI people over the last few decades cannot be wiped out overnight, even if it might seem that way.”
Social Media and the Community
We can either “automatically and blindly read whatever comes into our news feed or we can notice that we’re doing that. Then make a decision to actively search for what are some ways Americans are taking control. What are some positive things coming out of that? How is the community coming together?” Post some positive stories on Facebook to balance out the negatives. While we don’t have any control over the US election result or the recount, we do have control over what we read, what we post and what we do in the community to help.
“There are going to be some really dark times for the world and for the LGBTI community and minorities, so if we can just accept that and then feel healthy emotional responses to that - think about what we can and can’t control, soothe our anxiety, observe our own emotional responses, look after ourselves, get involved in the community, do things that are positive,” we’ll get through this.
Paul Martin is a Queensland, Australia based LGBTI counselling psychologist who has been recognised as one of the 25 most influential gay and lesbian Australians. He counsels LGBTI clients online nationally and is a Senior Organisational Development psychologist. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.