I'm a Trauma Psychologist. Even After Trump, We Can Emerge Stronger | Opinion

For many Americans, the past four years have shaken or shattered our faith in U.S. government and common decency. Lowlights include President Donald Trump asking Ukraine to "do us a favor" and investigate his political rival, the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, multiple battles over right-wing Supreme Court appointments, repeated refusals to condemn white supremacy, separating immigrant children from their families, arrests and convictions of numerous presidential advisers and associates, relentless attacks on the Affordable Care Act, furious tweetstorms affecting U.S. policy, a catastrophically mismanaged pandemic that has killed more than 220,000 Americans and attempts to undermine the 2020 election.

The list of seismic ethical and norm violations seems almost bottomless. And it is taking a psychological toll on the American people.

As a trauma psychologist, I believe that, for many Americans, the past four years have assaulted our well-being, gravely damaged our connection with one another and qualify as a chained series of traumatic events. Gallup has reported that Americans are some of the most stressed people in the world, and the American Psychological Association found that most people name the current political climate as a significant source of anxiety. That's why I'm advocating that we embark on a process of post-traumatic growth.

Traumatic events can forever harm an individual. They can result in gruesome, recurrent nightmares or leave you with a hyperarousal imprint, so whenever you hear an unexpected sound, like a car backfire, you jump out of your skin. Yet trauma can also positively transform people and leave them with a renewed, reinvigorated perspective on and purpose in life.

Two psychologists, Lawrence Calhoun and Richard Tedeschi from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, published a paper in 1990 on their interviews with middle-aged adults about bereavement. They followed their subjects over an extended period of time, trying to determine how, when and why good can come from bad. Often referred to as post-traumatic growth, these positive changes can include improved relationships, more empathetic feelings and compassionate behaviors, additional coping strengths or mastery muscles, living more in line with one's values and an increased connection to spirituality or God, as well as a deeper, sweeter appreciation of life.

The concept of post-traumatic growth has been found in a diverse range of trauma survivors—military veterans with life-threatening illness or injury, parentally bereaved children and adolescents, refugees, people living with HIV and those who have experienced natural or manmade disasters, as well as victims of crime.

Several studies show that post-traumatic growth increases over time, starting in the first few months after a traumatic event. Whereas resilience is like bouncing back, post-traumatic growth is a transformation. It is both a process and an outcome. It is deliberate, time-consuming and contemplative. It is the development of new strengths through re-evaluation.

While there is no one, singular pathway to such transformation, effective strategies such as cognitive reappraisal or reframing, intentional goal-directed coping, greater social support, spirituality and better mental health predict greater post-traumatic growth. For example, we don't want to bury our heads in denial or minimization about the effects of the Trump presidency. But we also don't want to become so overwhelmed in our anxiety and outrage that we can't function appropriately or effectively. If we look for the opportunities that this presidency has revealed and work hard together, we can move forward.

Part of the process involves engaging in reflective processing instead of broken-record brooding. We need to acknowledge and constructively work through the violations of the Trump administration to reorganize around our shared values and social norms. If we mourn the losses, tremendous setbacks and struggles encountered in the Trump presidency, we can find seeds of hope that post-traumatic growth is possible.

It is also important that we not offer ourselves or others insensitive or inappropriate minimizations or empty platitudes, but instead reorder our priorities in meaningful, substantive ways. As an example, we can take actions to obtain justice for those who have historically been marginalized. We can help dismantle systemic racism by acknowledging and working to correct underlying power structures in policing, voting, education, housing, health care and employment. We can also look for opportunities to strengthen our connections to our fellow Americans and join the rest of the world in mitigating climate change and advocating for world peace. For ordinary Americans, that could mean volunteering or other forms of community engagement. But the first step is voting.

Our country has been challenged and changed by the Trump administration. Who better to show us the transformative power of suffering than former Vice President Joe Biden? A man who lost his first wife and child in a tragic car accident and one of his beloved sons to cancer. Maybe we can all rise and walk together on a dignified, respectful and peaceful road that will lead to recovery, redemption and reconciliation for our country. Maybe, through post-traumatic growth, we can transform tragedy into triumph.

Joan Cook, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.