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Psychologist explains ‘Trump anxiety disorder’ and why he continues to brainwash his supporters

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White House photo of President Donald Trump at the National Day of Prayer. (Tia DuFour)

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On Thursday, President Donald Trump pardoned Conrad Black, a former media mogul convicted of fraud.
In 2012, Black wrote a piece for National Review headlined “Trump Is the Good Guy” and Trump had pledged on the campaign trail that he would free him.

Presidents have been known to pardon allies, but usually stack controversial pardons for the end of their terms.

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The President’s unpredictable behavior continues to add to an atmosphere of unease.

Jennifer Contarino Panning, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and owner of Mindful Psychology Associates in Evanston, Illinois. Panning coined the term “Trump anxiety disorder” for the emotions people are experiencing in volatile political times, including by kids who fear school shootings, which are increasingly on the rise.

She specializes in the treatment of mood disorders, eating disorders, college student mental health, stress, and trauma using an integrative approach of cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness, dialectical behavioral therapy, and clinical hypnosis. She has been widely interviewed for her insights into public anxiety triggered by Trump. She is a contributor to “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 37 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Professionals Assess a President,” edited by Bandy X. Lee (dangerouscase.org).

Raw Story: At a vigil held in Colorado about the recent school shootings, the students walked out on DC politicians, chanting, “MENTAL HEALTH! MENTAL HEALTH!” What happens to the mental health of students when they are confronted with such widespread school shootings?

Jennifer Contarino Panning: Students who have survived a school shooting are likely to be directly traumatized by such an event, but American students who haven’t been directly involved in school shootings are also struggling. Students nationwide regularly participate in school lockdown drills, see or read news coverage of school shootings in our country, and hear their parents voice frustration and sadness at the lack of any real efforts to address how to prevent school shootings.

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This is all contributing to increasing stress levels, and childhood is already increasingly more stressful with bullying and social media comparison as contributors, so dealing with this additional stress on top of normal childhood stress is difficult. The helpless feelings that students experience can lead to chronic stress and even develop mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I imagine these students who walked out on the politicians at this rally are struggling with the lawmakers’ “thoughts and prayers” refrain after shootings take place without any real follow-up action for prevention or addressing this epidemic. Our country is not focusing on actionable ways to prevent these mass shootings from happening, such as stricter gun control laws, and the students who have directly experienced the terror of surviving a school shooting are fed up with this inaction.

Raw Story: Can you explain “Trump Anxiety Disorder”?

Jennifer Contarino Panning: Therapists in their practices started seeing anxiety in many clients leading up to the 2016 election, immediately after, when Trump took office, and continuing to the current day. As mental health professionals, this is not something that we witnessed before with the election of a presidential candidate of either party affiliation. Trump Anxiety Disorder is a phrase referring to a specific set of anxiety symptoms directly related to the uncertain sociopolitical climate that resulted after Trump became President.

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These symptoms can include: lack of sleep, a feeling of losing of control, and helplessness in an unpredictable sociopolitical climate, hopelessness, ruminative worry, irritability, and even excessive time spent on social media or consuming news.

We see certain people who are more vulnerable to this disorder, including immigrants, undocumented people, individuals in the LGBTQ community, people of color, and members of certain religious communities such as Muslims and Jews–people who have been directly targeted by this administration or whose existence is at risk.

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Raw Story: Part of that is that Trump quite regularly seems to lie and cheat.

Jennifer Contarino Panning: A good leader demonstrates credibility, dependability, integrity, intelligence, humility, self-reflection, and responsiveness to concerns.

Great leaders know they cannot do anything all on their own and depend on a group of trusted advisors. If a nation of people is under poor leadership, they begin to lose trust.

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Humans like and need predictability in their lives, so a leader who is brash and unpredictable creates chaos and resultant stress. Security and safety is considered a basic need (along with access to food, clean water, and sleep) in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, so when basic needs are not being met, stress, anxiety, and dread can become regular feelings in a population of people.

Gaslighting is a term that refers to a tactic in which a person, in order to gain more power, makes victims question their reality. We have seen this phenomenon with Trump and his tactics of stating that everything is terrific while people knowing the things he says aren’t true. People start to question their own view of reality and need to refer to facts from an unbiased source to confirm that they are indeed experiencing reality correctly.

Raw Story: Is there anything useful that people can do?

When faced with a situation that can elicit feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, it is important to try to become empowered in whatever way possible. For some people, this may be interacting with their congressional representatives to advocate for causes that are important to them and specific to their values. One good thing that has happened since Trump took office is that more people have been active in political advocacy groups or running for local offices. There are many national and local grass-roots organizations that are politically motivated. People can also donate money to causes or advocacy groups to further their cause. On a day-to-day level, it is important to watch our consumption of social media and news… It is good to be informed but detrimental to be flooded with anxiety and dread, which can result from reading or watching too many upsetting news stories. If you are finding yourself flooded and demoralized, it is good to acknowledge those feelings and then connect with others, either directly expressing feelings and worries with trusted loved ones, or taking a break from the flood of feelings by doing fun or relaxing activities with loved ones. Additionally, when there is so much negativity and stress in the news and in our culture, it is even more important to connect with loved ones (assuming these are healthy relationships) and expressing our caring and love towards people who are important in our lives.

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Raw Story: What’s happening with his supporters? Why are they so uncritical of the President?

Jennifer Contarino Panning: I think there are several things happening with his supporters. Some are lifelong staunch Republicans who are loyal to the party above all else and would support any Republican in office. Others are “one issue” voters (such as anti-abortion) or belong to certain religious groups who adhere to conservative beliefs.

However, there is still a large group of Trump supporters who sadly seem to have been brainwashed by the President. This is not their fault. Certain biased news sources such as Fox News contributes to this brainwashing, as does Trump himself with his manipulation tactics. Some of these followers are angry, feel disenfranchised and powerless, and feel like they have been sold a bill of goods by past politicians who made promises that went unfulfilled and who were elitist and didn’t “get them.”

Trump has appealed to these Americans by fueling their fear and anger while also creating exaggerated threats of the other (for example, Mexican immigrants and trans people). He has also manipulated them to go against their own self-interest by making promises he will never follow through on (for example, promoting coal miners’ future jobs). He talks a good game as a “regular guy,” although he was born into wealth, but people buy into this narrative that he is “one of us.” Trump has the charismatic ability to make his false statements believable and preys on the fears and angers of his followers.

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