Lloyd Sederer, M.D., knows about trauma. As mental health commissioner for New York City, he worked with thousands of patients who had experienced such traumatic events as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the devastation of Hurricane Sandy.
“Unfortunately I’ve had a great deal of professional experience with post-disaster trauma,” Sederer said. “These experiences have given me a greater understanding of how individuals cope with traumatic events.”
These days Sederer has been spending time counseling New Yorkers struggling to cope with a different kind of trauma: the results of the recent presidential election. While not all Americans feel anxiety in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory — 51 percent of people recently surveyed by the Pew Research Center said Trump’s election made them feel “hopeful” — many residents of blue states like New York and Minnesota do, Sederer said, and he’s been focused on advising blue-state residents to pull themselves out of their depression and take the long view.
“People need to get back to everyday life,” Sederer said. “Some people feel knocked down by this election, but they need to get back up and brush themselves off. This is instrumental to recovery.”
Earlier this week, I spoke with Sederer, author of a number of books for mental health professionals and lay audiences, including his latest, “Improving Mental Health: Four Secrets in Plain Sight.” He used personal experience to put this year’s bruising presidential race in context.
MinnPost: What is the most important truth you’ve learned from your work with people facing jarring, traumatic events?
Lloyd Sederer: The biggest message I’ve learned in all of these settings is that in the face of all traumatic events, people are actually resilient. We all have to keep that in mind. I’m not trying to minimize anyone’s immediate reaction to traumatic events, but in order to heal, we all need to start with the premise that in times of trauma and disappointment, when people get knocked down, eventually most will dust themselves off and keep on going.
MP: Is it even fair to compare people’s reactions to this election to the trauma faced by individuals who’ve lived through a natural disaster, a war or a terrorist event?
LS: I’ve written on this topic, about trauma in the wake of some terrible event, whether it was a terrorist event, a natural disaster or a war. While the impact is not the same as the loss of life or personal property, I believe this election has been particularly traumatizing to a number of individuals.
LS: Yes. We’ve all been exposed to it. We’ve all been rattled by the experience, particularly if we have reason to be rattled because of our ethnic heritage or past exposure to persecution. Living through this election is not like having your home washed away by a hurricane or losing a loved one in one of the towers on Sept. 11, but it does carry a measure of trauma and strong emotion for many people.
Of course there are of some qualifiers. The first is that the degree of trauma or distress a person has experienced is linearly related, highly correlated to the degree of exposure they have to the actual event or the consequences of that event.
MP: Can you tell me more about what you mean by “exposure?”
LS: Say if you were in New York City on Sept. 11 and you watched television when the planes hit the towers. In that case, you had some limited exposure to the event. And a person who watched news programs about the attacks for hours and hours day after day increased their exposure. Of course those who had the most exposure to the trauma were the families of the people who were killed in those towers and the rescue workers who tried to save them.
The degree of exposure to the event is very important in terms of its impact. For most people, the sadness or trauma of this particular election will wane in time, but there are those who may become victims of racist violence or lose their health insurance or risk being deported. They may feel the full impact.
MP: Are there other types of people who may be likely to feel significantly stressed by these events?
LS: A second qualifier is a past history of mental or chemical health issues. That puts a person at risk of having those issues triggered by trauma. People with underlying depression may be affected, and members of vulnerable communities like immigrants or undocumented workers may also experience higher rates of anxiety and depression as a result of the election.
MP: This brings us back to your earlier point about natural resilience. How can people pull themselves out of these distressing cycles and keep going?
LS: There are a couple of practical suggestions. First, many people need to control their reading and television viewing. To tell the truth, I’ve been having a hard time doing that myself: Every time I see an article about Trump in the newspaper I read it, and every single article makes me feel miserable.
I’m better at controlling my television watching — particularly when there are those endless loops where all you see are the people Trump is selecting for his Cabinet. I can just turn off the TV and willfully limit my exposure, and I suggest if a person is feeling distressed, that they do that, too.
MP: What if a person’s negative feelings extend beyond television viewing? What if they are having a negative impact on their everyday life?
LS: If a person is in distress of any sort, it’s not healthy to be alone. Being alone is a recipe for distress, for moving away from natural resilience. You need spend time among people who you trust in order to heal and move on.
In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been to a number of social gatherings, to dinner with friends and to business meetings. The conversation has drifted to the topic of the election. That’s fine, but while I always say it is good to talk to friends and family about what is distressing you, you don’t want this discussion to take over the dinner party or the meeting. You have to know when to move on to other topics before the conversation gets bogged down.
MP: Especially during Thanksgiving dinner.
LS: Beautiful point. Exactly.
MP: I’ve talked to a few kids who’ve been distressed by the election results and are worried about what they might mean for friends and neighbors. What kind of advice would you offer for parents?
LS: As a parent, you have a responsibility to limit your kids’ exposure to television shows they can’t really understand and can only emotionally react to. The same goes for print media.
Children look to their parents for cues about how to react to a situation. If a parent says, “This election is bad thing, and things are never going to be the same,” that has a very different impact than the message, “This is a difficult thing, but our lives are going to be OK. We’ll get through it.” It is very important to send positive, hopeful, resilient messages to our children.
MP: Are there ways a person can model resilience?
LS: People need to get back to their everyday lives. They need to get back to their routines, to wake up in the morning, to brush their teeth, give their kids breakfast, go to work and to do whatever gives them healthy pleasure. People should get out and go running, go for a walk or watch a movie. They need to get back to everyday life. This is instrumental to recovery.
MP: What about young people who are feeling rattled and cynical about the political process? Do you have any advice for them?
LS: I would encourage young people — some may have underlying guilt because they may not have voted because they were turned off by the election — to find ways that they can be helpful in their local communities, to use their talents to help their neighbors. That’s one healthy way out of feelings of loss or trauma.
It is important to realize that the federal government doesn’t control everything in our lives. States and towns and cities have a lot going on in terms of community service and faith-based organizations. These are places where young people can apply their energy and do something positive for others.
That’s the kind of response that we really want to try to encourage because there will be another election in four years and there will be state and city elections before that. This is about digging in and finding ways to be helpful in social and community-oriented ways. If you are in a blue state and you are a blue voter, it is important to think in terms of the next steps you can take politically and then organize around those steps.
MP: What would you say is the most productive reaction for people who are feeling down about this election?
LS: Many people feel like we are about to enter an era of unkindness. What’s the antidote for that? My advice is to be kind. Be kind to others. Be kind to yourself. Acts of kindness generate additional acts of kindness. Being kind and performing acts of kindness to others is a way stop feeling helpless and start feeling better about the world again.