WASHINGTON, DC — For more than 20 years, Goddy Aledan has been driving people from both sides of the political divide through the streets of Washington DC. Yet lately his passengers are much more antsy than usual. He says he has never previously noticed this degree of anxiety and fear in his passengers.
"I would say 60 percent of those that ride my cab are really anxious," Aledan said from behind the wheel, as he maneuvers through rush hour traffic. And it’s not just office politics or finding a new job after a grueling election cycle, it’s the very fate of human civilisation that has his riders on edge.
"They fear that this guy could take us to war," Aledan said — "this guy" being Donald Trump, the president of the United States.
And this is all happening in a town that has some of the country’s highest per capita rates of mental health professionals, ranking fifth nationwide according to federal labour data. Other parts of the country aren’t so lucky. The states of Michigan, Texas and California suffer severe shortages of psychiatric professionals, says the Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-partisan healthcare research group.
In both foreign and domestic policy, critics accuse Trump of fear-mongering, worries which have only been amplified by controversial executive orders: notably the travel ban, a bid to withhold funds from "sanctuary cities," and the crackdown on undocumented immigrants. Others fear for the future of reproductive rights and healthcare for the sick.
Contemporary international politics is a kind of externalised anxiety disorder.
— Matt Haig (@matthaig1) April 23, 2017
Meanwhile, the looming shadow of atomic annihilation has made a comeback for residents of the nation’s capital, and the whole world, with relations between Russia and the United States worsening against the backdrop of a North Korean nuclear threat. And these are just the first 100 days of Trump.
Over the last year, US politics have become startlingly unpredictable, and Trump’s nomination and election win seem to be only the beginning. On Tuesday, Trump shocked Washington by firing the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, James Comey, as the agency was in the midst of investigating Russia’s role in Trump’s victory. Accusations of high-level collusion with Russia have added a layer of paranoia to political life in the city.
From the east coast to the west coast, Americans are experiencing signs of stress and anxiety brought on by politics. Sometimes these feelings can express themselves as anger and even violence, with brawls breaking out at campuses between rival protesters. Even places that seem completely apolitical, such as a local gymnasium, aren’t immune.
Anxiety officially on the rise
For the first time in ten years, the American Psychological Association (APA) — the largest scientific and professional organisation representing psychology in the United States — found that Americans' overall stress level increased between August 2016 and January 2017.
And Aledan’s estimate of anxiety among around 60 percent of DC cab passengers corresponds with other data. Two-thirds of Americans reported being stressed about the future of the nation, according to the APA’s online survey Stress in America: Coping with Change.
“The stress we’re seeing around political issues is deeply concerning, because it’s hard for Americans to get away from it,” Katherine Nordal, APA’s executive director for professional practice, said in a press release after the report was released in February.
Fifty-seven percent of APA survey respondents cited the current political climate as “a very or somewhat significant source of stress.”
“We’re surrounded by conversations, news and social media that constantly remind us of the issues that are stressing us the most,” Nordal added.
I have a medical condition where every time I look at politics I get crippling depression. I guess that's a pre-existing condition.
— TLTC (@ImTLTC) May 4, 2017
Tension over current events can be particularly intense in the workplace, where Americans with starkly different political attitudes have to make an effort to get along while trying to make a living, another APA study showed.
Therapists have also noted the rising level of anxiety, spurred in part by the unprecedented accessibility of information, with smartphone alerts of political and international crises erupting in the palms of their hands, whether they’re ready for them or not. Just twenty years ago, most people would have to wait to be close to a television screen or a newspaper to find reason to worry.
Lodro Rinzler, the founder of MNDFL (short for “Mindful”) meditation centres in New York, said he has seen a big spike in attendance in meditation classes that focus on navigating rapid fire emotions.
"Particularly the months following the elections, I heard a number of people say ‘there is a bombardment of things that scare me and I can’t even catch my breath in the midst of it,’ so they are literally coming to meditation as a way to catch their breath," Rinzler said. "It’s important to have strong boundaries around when and how you process these things so it’s not constantly triggering the fight or flight response in the brain."
I feel obligated to have an invested interest in politics but it raises anxiety and makes me sick on the daily
— Colt (@colterburgess) May 11, 2017
In fact, political conversations in one YMCA gym in Pennsylvania became so heated this year that, in one incident, a physical fight between a group of men nearly broke out. As a solution, the gym's management put a permanent ban on a number of political television channels.
"We removed the 24 hour news channels, CNBC, CNN, FOX, MSNBC in response to some boisterous conversations over politics," said Trish Fisher, the chief executive officer of the Greater Scranton YMCA.
Since the ban went into effect at the end of February, the response from other members has been very positive and the gym has no longer received complaints about the "colourful discussions," according to Fisher.
To let off steam, Americans have also been turning to unconventional therapy forums in record numbers.
TalkSpace, an online therapy portal based in New York City with over 1,000 licensed mental health professionals, noted a dramatic increase in traffic to their website in the immediate aftermath of the elections. The site went from 2,000 visitors per day to over 10,000 on the night of the election, according to the company.
On January 20, the day Trump was inaugurated as president, 60 percent of their clients reported dealing with some form of "post-election stress". Some 25 percent of those surveyed claimed they were "very stressed."
Sam Friedlander, a Hollywood writer and director, put a name to this "post-election stress" coining it "Trump-induced anxiety disorder". In his prescription drug commercial parody, Friedlander even went so far as to say he found a "cure" for the condition. The viral video has more than a million views on YouTube.
Jokes aside, medical professionals caution against using the term “Trump-induced anxiety disorder” because anxiety can be induced by a number of factors, not just the controversial new commander-in-chief.
Politics can combine with pre-existing personal pressures to create a perfect storm of stress, said Katherine Hertlein, a therapist and professor at the University of Nevada.
"There is this concept called 'intersectionality,'" Hertlein said. "For example, I have a client who identifies as a woman, who was from another country and who has also had an abortion, so for her these policies are problematic, to say the least, but her issue is that all these come together for her – the intersection of all these identities is what is causing a lot of distress."
"So if she makes ground on one level, she has these other two pieces of her identity that are still being challenged, compromised and the rhetoric sounds like it is disrespectful to that identity piece," Hertlein adds.
And it’s not just therapists who have experienced this phenomenon. Washington cab drivers like Adelan will have to pick up the slack when mental health care professionals aren’t around to listen. In his professional opinion, the diagnosis is dire.
"A lot of people are scared to death," he said.