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This is your brain on Trump: Four years of chaos has changed us. What would four more do?

By Samantha Melamed, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Health & Fitness

PHILADELPHIA - On an October afternoon nearly a month ahead of the presidential election, Mohamed Kabba hustled into the mail-in voting center at Tilden Middle School in Southwest Philadelphia with an air of urgency.

"As an immigrant, there's a lot at stake for me," said Kabba, 64. He left Sierra Leone 30 years ago - but the past four divisive, unpredictable, and chaotic years have been like nothing he's experienced in America.

Head-spinning highlights include: President Trump's impeachment, the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, divisive battles over Supreme Court appointments, countless policy-shaping Tweetstorms, the arrests of numerous presidential advisers, the failure to condemn fringe conspiracy theories and white supremacy groups, an out-of-control pandemic that infected even the White House, and now repeated efforts to undermine the election.

The thought of four more years of that? "I cannot contemplate it at all," Kabba said. "I'll go back to Africa."

Across party lines, a majority of Americans have experienced significant stress as a result of the current political climate. According to the American Psychological Association's annual Stress in America survey, about 83% of us are stressed about the future of the country. So-called "Trump Anxiety Disorder" (or, as the president has derided it, "Trump Derangement Syndrome") has elevated blood pressure, caused bouts of irritable bowel syndrome, and generated ambient, chronic anxiety.

The trigger of all that stress is not just the death spiral that now passes for a news cycle. It's also the yawning divisions that have only grown more impassible in the past four years, said Michael Baime, founder of the Penn Program for Mindfulness. One measure of that chasm: A Pew Research Center survey found around 75% of voters have few or no friends who support a different presidential candidate.

 

"It doesn't matter which side of the political spectrum you're on: The other side is not just in disagreement with you, but evil and hateful," Baime said. "That's really not a foundation for a sane culture. That's not a foundation for a peaceful life. It creates a lot of insecurity and distrust and anxiety."

In Philadelphia, voters who went for Hillary Clinton by a 5-1 ratio in 2016 have plodded through the last four years by doomscrolling and social-media fasting, knitting pussy hats, and marching for racial justice, wearing safety pins, and posting "Hate has no home here" signs. Now, they're shouldering the knee-buckling emotional weight of this election with plans to vote, to protest if needed, and to find their own ways of coping, alone and in community, with whatever the outcome may be.

That takes a toll, said Keren Sofer, a psychologist practicing in Center City, who has noted the rise of chronic, "toxic" stress among clients.

"Our limbic system, which appraises threat in the environment and helps regulate emotion, does not distinguish between pandemic stress, political stress, relationship stress, or work stress," she said. Whatever the threat, she said, the reptilian brain goes ahead and triggers the release of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.

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