Subtle Ways This Presidency May Affect Your Health

by Lara Rutherford-Morrison

Thinking about the events of his presidency so far — crowd size squabbles, the global gag rule, an anti-Islamic travel ban, massive protests, and opening volleys against Obamacare — it’s startling to realize that Trump took office less than two weeks ago. Many people are feeling stress due to Donald Trump’s presidency, as anxiety about what his time in office will mean for the future of America mounts. Even if you feel like you are handling the chaos of daily news and public anger fairly well, stress from the new presidency may be affecting you in ways you might not expect and that, if ignored, may put you at risk for long term effects on your health.

Even before Trump was elected, mental health professionals voiced concern about his affect on mental health. In the summer of 2016, more than 3,000 therapists signed a manifesto denouncing “Trumpism,” which they defined as an ideology bent on scapegoating and demeaning others, promoting intolerance,and promoting a harmful ideal of hyper-masculinity. The therapists argued that Trumpism “will undermine the emotional health of those seen as the ‘other’ in America — both historically denigrated groups and those whose turn will come. And it will compromise the integrity of those who are seduced by the illusion that real Americans can only become winners if others become losers.” The manifesto concluded, “Simply stated, Trumpism is inconsistent with emotionally healthy living.”

In October, a survey by the American Psychological Association found that more than half (52 percent) of American adults regarded the election as a significant source of stress. In the months since the election, mental health professionals have continued to report that Trump’s election has caused anxiety and fear among their patients.

The stress that many Americans are feeling right now is valid. There are legitimate reasons for people to feel concerned about access to healthcare, reproductive rights, and climate change, not to mention a presidential administration that was voted into office on a platform of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and Islamophobia and that, so far, seems more than willing to act on those attitudes. As we move forward, it is vital that Americans who oppose Trump’s policies fight for equality and justice — by protesting peacefully, donating, volunteering, contacting representatives, and making their voices heard.

But this resistance must come with a commitment to self-care. Chronic stress poses a threat to one’s long term health, impacting everything from sleep patterns, to mood, to heart function. It’s important to take the longview: We are less than two weeks into Trump’s presidency, and already, it’s incredibly easy to feel overwhelmed by anger, anxiety, and a sense of futility. It’s going to be a long four years, to say the least, and you need to keep yourself well — so that, as America moves forward, you can stay engaged and involved, without burning out. That means regular sleep and exercise, a balanced diet, and lots of water, but also time to relax, unplug, and enjoy life. Take the time to do whatever makes you happy and gives you peace, whether that’s doing yoga, hiking, hanging out with friends, or (my choice) reading lurid romance novels.

If you’re experiencing these signs of stress, it may be time to step back (slightly) from the news cycle:

1. Sleeplessness

Neil B. Kavey of the National Sleep Foundation reports that, although not all insomnia is caused by stress, stress can and does mess with one’s ability to sleep. If your insomnia flares up at times of stress — if, for example, it seems tied to Trump’s election or executive orders — your sleeplessness is probably situational (as opposed to a symptom of a larger problem); reducing your stress level should help your sleep improve. It’s also always a good idea to practice good sleep habits, like setting a regular sleep schedule and staying away from TV, tablet, and cell phone screens a couple hours before you go to bed.

2. Headaches

Daily stress can trigger headaches, and our current political landscape offers plenty of stress to go around. The Cut recently published an article about people who have noticed an uptick in migraines since Trump’s election; Dr. Elizabeth Seng, a clinical psychologist and head-pain expert for Excedrin, told The Cut that when Excedrin surveyed more than a thousand people across the nation, “seven out of ten Americans said that this presidential election has caused more headaches than any other election year.” Seng added that people who already routinely suffer from tension headaches and migraines are more likely to experience stress-induced headaches.

3. Jaw pain

When people are stressed out, they tend to clench their jaws unconsciously, both when they are awake and asleep. This clenching can lead to muscle pain in the jaw and neck, and can trigger headaches, and even migraines. Personally, I clench my teeth a lot when I’m asleep, especially when I’m stressed, so now I get to wear a super sexy mouth guard to bed. It’s annoying, but worth it to prevent headaches and neck pain.

4. An inability to focus

Stress can make concentrating difficult. The constant onslaught of news pertaining to the new president in the last few weeks — a seemingly endless stream of controversies, each new one emerging before people have had a chance to process the last — probably hasn’t helped your ability to focus, either.

5. Irritability

A lot of people find themselves becoming irritable when they’re stressed out. If you’re getting unreasonably annoyed, not simply by what’s happening politically, but by the normal actions of the people around you, your mood may be a result of chronic stress.

6. Bizarre, vivid dreams

Stress can impact, not only our ability to sleep, but also what we think about when we do sleep. Stress in your waking life can lead to stress in your sleeping life, in the form of especially strange, vivid, or disturbing dreams.

7. Changes in appetite

Major changes in appetite may be linked to stress levels. According to the Harvard Mental Health Letter, stress in the short term can lead to a decrease in appetite. In moments of intense stress, the hypothalamus (the part of the brain responsible for the autonomic nervous system and the pituitary gland) calls for the release of hormones that suppress the appetite — the idea being that in a “fight or flight” situation, your body needs to put hunger aside.

However, in the long term, stress has the opposite effect, leading people to up their food intake. In the face of chronic stress, the adrenal gland releases cortisol, a hormone that increases appetite. Additionally, research suggests that ongoing stress gives people heightened cravings for foods that are high in fat and sugar.

8. Body pain

Stress often leads to physical pain in the body, especially in the neck, shoulders, and back. Unfortunately, pain is a source of stress in itself, so stress and pain can create a reinforcing cycle — you’re stressed, your body hurts, you feel more stressed because of the pain, your body hurts more because of the stress, and on and on and on. That’s why it’s so important to recognize that you are experiencing stress, so that you can take steps to minimize its effects on the body.

9. Skin breakouts and rashes

Sometimes stress is written right on your face. If you’ve ever experienced the joy of breaking out right when you’re horribly stressed out, you are already well aware that stress can trigger acne. Stress can also make skin conditions like psoriasis, eczema, and rosacea worse and cause skin rashes and fever blisters.

10. Consuming more alcohol and tobacco

In times of high stress, some people attempt to take the edge off by increasing their intake of alcohol and tobacco. It’s understandable, but, obviously, not good for you in the long run. With the Trump administration set to be in office for at least four more years, it’s important to find ways to de-stress that don’t harm your body and health.

It’s a lot easier to say, “Be less stressed!”, than it is to actually reduce your stress levels, but there are simple things you can do to ease the strain. Take time to exercise regularly and eat balanced meals. Try meditation. Try to find a balance in your news consumption that allows you to stay informed and engaged, without feeling overtaken. Limit your exposure to blue light in the two hours before bed — doing so will help to regulate your sleep patterns, as well as help you to be in a peaceful state of mind before sleeping. Read a (fun) book. Hang out with friends — it’s great if you can empower each other to work for social justice, but also make time for fun and laughter.