Donald Trump’s election was a ‘traumatic experience’ for many

To say that the 2016 presidential election had a profound impact on the American psyche might be an understatement. 

In fact, new research suggests that for many, the experience was actually traumatic. 

In a survey of roughly 800 college students, 25 percent reported such high levels of stress after the election that researchers likened it to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a new study published in the Journal of American College Health

Throughout the election, researchers noticed some pretty strong reactions in young adults. But the day after the election, lead researcher Melissa Hagan taught two classes where she saw that students were visibly upset — some were even crying. 

Anti-Trump buttons are for sale at a protest against Donald Trump’s presidency in 2016.

That, in combination with some polls in circulation discussing politically-caused “stress” drove her and her colleagues to look into how exactly the election affected certain people, Hagan said via email. 

Hagan and her team administered a psychological assessment called the Impact of Event Scale, which is a standard quick measure to gauge how a person responded to trauma, and they tailored the questions to the presidential election. 

They found that some college students were reporting that they were impacted by the election “in such a way that it might lead to diagnosable post-traumatic stress disorder,” Hagan said in a statement

Some common symptoms of that kind of stress are chronic fatigue, physical illness, stomach or chest pain, and feeling overwhelmed. Results of the survey found that certain groups scored higher on the assessment than others. 

For example, Black and Hispanic students reported higher levels of stress than their white peers. Women scored about 45 percent higher than men. And Democrats scored two and a half times higher on the assessment. Non-Christians also reported feeling strongly affected by the election results.

However Hagan said it’s important to note that the presidential election itself does not technically constitute a traumatic event. 

Protesters gather outside of the military recruitment center in Time Square to protest Trump's policies.

Protesters gather outside of the military recruitment center in Time Square to protest Trump’s policies.

According to the American Psychological Association, in order for an event to be considered traumatic, “it is required that the person was exposed to: death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence,” Hagan said. 

That said, media coverage of the new administration’s potential policies, some which have already been enacted, were perceived as life-threatening to some Americans. Moreover, many didn’t believe Donald Trump would be elected — especially not after the Access Hollywood tape was released, which might have been triggering for women and men who are survivors of sexual assault.

Psychotherapist and author Jonathan Alpert, who is unaffiliated with the study, said the study’s results do not come as a shock to him. 

“It wasn’t politics as usual,” Alpert, who wasn’t involved in the new study, said in an interview. 

An officer watches on as protesters in Phoenix, Arizona gather.

An officer watches on as protesters in Phoenix, Arizona gather.

In the months following the election, Alpert — like many other psychologists — noticed widespread young adult upheaval on both sides of the political spectrum. 

It’s possible that the shared outrage of college students could reinforce their levels of stress, Alpert said.

“It’s almost like a contagion effect. You could almost catch stress from one another — like empathy,” he said.

Barbara Nosal, Chief Clinical Officer at the mental health facility Newport Academy who is also unaffiliated with the study, said in an interview that the degree of impact also might have to do with where young adults are in their lives.

The competitive college environment, technology, and an undefined sense of independence already affects young adult development — plus, the election was an additional stressor. 

Then presidential-candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Rochester, New York.

Then presidential-candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Rochester, New York.

“Their reaction to the election may have just compounded negativity on top of all of the other pieces of their of identity,” Nosal said. 

Nosal said the depth of a reaction is also dependent on the individual person or their most salient demographic, not necessarily the stressor itself. 

“Maybe a comment or something that occurs afterwards in their personal life brings the trauma up — plus ongoing discussions in the media may also trigger a traumatic response,” Nosal said. 

And while the survey couldn’t reveal any long-term impacts since the assessment was only administered once — if these symptoms are left unresolved, Nosal said anxiety disorders and depression may follow. 

As to whether or not the clinical levels of stress vary based on the overarching political ideology of the school, Hagan thinks “it may be that symptoms are higher in states more ‘left-leaning,’” but more research would have to be done to know for sure. 

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