The Collective PTSD of a Nation

Since the Presidential election of 2016 - even prior to it - there has been a spike in the number of patients who are reporting experiences of anxiety, powerlessness, restlessness, fear, difficulty sleeping, and being more scattered and disoriented than they previously have known themselves to be. This is particularly jarring when their sense of self is shattered and they are exhibiting symptoms that have not materialized before in their adulthood. Still more concerning is when, given the changes in health insurance in recent years, patients can no longer afford their deductibles and therefore opt to discontinue treatment at a time when they might most need to be coming in.

Not long ago I attended a seminar in which the speaker addressed how in ways not previously seen to this extent or magnitude, people seem to be responding to a collective trauma brought on by our current political climate. Clinicians, in addition to our patients, are struggling to manage their own levels of anxiety and powerlessness. Many of the people in our country show a complete dismissal or disinterest in facts, choosing instead the ease of not having to think for themselves and diminishing their personal fears by taking comfort in entrusting those in authority who are disseminating lies and "fake news." On a national (if not global) level, this is incredibly terrifying. Many of us are reeling from the continual onslaught of political egregiousness. This constant bombardment of one horrific incident after another is a form of trauma and the very thing that can disrupt us to such an extent that we are left in the position of having to always be in a reactionary stance, having to brace ourselves for further trauma.

For people who have a history of trauma in their childhood and adolescence, the current political landscape is all the more fraught. It is like walking through a landmine that presents us with ongoing triggers which reawaken those early traumas which may be deeply entrenched. One might react internally in much the way they did when they were young, defenseless children. 

I encourage patients to limit their exposure to the news if it is interfering with their ability to function. Given that it may be crucial to have a safe relationship such as the one that can develop in a therapeutic relationship, I think it is important to work together to figure out how people can continue coming in if their insurance is the barrier that is preventing them from seeking the help they require. Having a support system and appropriate self-care is of the utmost importance for both patients and clinicians during this highly chaotic time. 

Depression and Anxiety as Defense Mechanisms

There is a great deal of confusion between feelings and mood states. Feelings (or emotions) are normal, healthy aspects of being human. Sadness, anger, joy, and fear are all common feelings that every human experiences, often daily. Mood states are not feelings. Depression, anxiety, and Bipolar Disorder (often known as manic depression) are mood states and can be considered mental disorders when severe enough. This isn't necessarily the case, as most people have experienced some type of depression or anxiety in their life time without it being serious enough to constitute a mental illness. We can say that we "feel depressed" or "feel anxious," which adds to the confusion between feelings and mood states.

Mood states may be understood as defense mechanisms that serve to protect us from underlying feelings. For instance, if we experience our anger as unacceptable or threatening, we might "depress" it and end up being "numb," resulting in not being in touch with the underlying anger. People who suffer from depression often describe themselves as being lethargic, fatigued, hopeless, or despairing. We cannot be in touch with our emotions when we are depressed. Reversely, when we are in touch with our feelings, we are not depressed at that moment. Anxiety may also be a way to manage underlying emotions. If our anger becomes too intense, we might react by becoming highly anxious. In this case, the anxiety is in response to a perceived threat induced by our anger. To complicate this further, if our anxiety then becomes too intense, we might then clamp down on it and become depressed. I describe this to my patients as layers upon layers, with the root feeling (which is pure and healthy) being buried deep down. So in this example, anger is the pure, healthy emotion that the individual has come to believe is bad, dangerous, or unacceptable. So Anger -> Anxiety -> Depression. Freud described depression as "anger turned inward." I believe this is what he meant by that explanation. Thus, a person might only experience his depression or anxiety, having suppressed his anger to a point where it cannot be easily accessed. But if a person suppresses one emotion, he suppresses all emotions. So when a person is suffering from depression, he cannot fully inhabit his anger, joy, fear, or sadness.

In psychotherapy I help my patients explore what feelings they might be defending against by employing the defenses of depression or anxiety. By teaching people that their feelings are normal and healthy and not to be feared, they start to shift their relationships to their emotions. Over time, this helps people learn alternate ways to manage their feelings so that they no longer believe they have to push their feelings away at all costs. We may view depression and anxiety disorders as forms of "acting in," i.e. turning inward to try to manage difficult emotions. In my next blog post, I will address "acting out" behaviors that people may employ as alternate ways to attempt to manage internal emotional states.