For many Americans, the anxiety surfaced on Election Day of 2016.
As the possibility of a Hillary Clinton victory began to slip away—and the possibility of a Donald Trump presidency became more and more certain—the contours of the new age of American anxiety began to take shape. In a 2017 column, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank described this phenomenon as "Trump Hypertensive Unexplained Disorder":
Overeating. Headaches. Fainting. Irregular heartbeat. Chronic neck pain. Depression. Irritable bowel syndrome. Tightness in the chest. Shortness of breath. Teeth grinding. Stomach ulcer. Indigestion. Shingles. Eye twitching. Nausea. Irritability. High blood sugar. Tinnitus. Reduced immunity. Racing pulse. Shaking limbs. Hair loss. Acid reflux. Deteriorating vision. Stroke. Heart attack. It was a veritable organ recital.
Two years later, the physiological effects of the Trump administration aren't going away. A growing body of research has tracked the detrimental impacts of Trump-related stress on broad segments of the American population, from young adults to women, to racial and LGBT communities.
The results aren't good.
The American Psychological Association's 2016 "Stress in America" survey, conducted online among some 3,400 American adults and published in February of 2017, found that 63 percent of respondents regard the future of the country as "a significant source of stress"; some 56 percent "say that they are stressed by the current political climate." The 2018 edition of the survey showed that the number of Americans who view the future of the country as a significant stressor had jumped to 69 percent; those who saw the political climate as a source of stress had jumped to 62 percent.
And this stress has metastasized in an observable phenomenon: Clinical psychologist Jennifer Panning characterized the phenomenon as "Trump Anxiety Disorder," a specific type of anxiety in which symptoms "were specific to the election of Trump and the resultant unpredictable sociopolitical climate." Others on the right side of the ideological spectrum have classified this anxiety as "Trump Derangement Syndrome," a label that the president himself embraced:
The mechanics of stress are generally the same from person to person: Under trying conditions, we start producing a trifecta of hormones (adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine) that forces your body to betray you. The Atlantic's Olga Khazan diagnosed the process nicely in 2015: "Adrenaline speeds up your heart rate and can raise blood pressure. Cortisol causes changes in the blood vessels that can, over time, increase the risk of heart attack or stroke." The cortisol, in turn, taps into your body fat for glucose, resulting in a boost in blood sugar and the compounds that can increase your risk of chronic health problems. In the short-term, the body's hormone cocktail is a safety mechanism; in the long-term, it's a betrayal.
While the relationship between stress and physiological health is vague in terms of its scope and impact, research generally indicates that traumatic or trying events affect populations unequally, especially those events with second- and third-order outcomes (like, say, public policy). Conversely, susceptibility to stress-related occurrences varies on a population and individual basis.
Fortunately, these physiological systems are open to our medical gaze—and the results are not so surprising: Those who experienced the most stress belonged to communities that are, by and large, opposed to the policies embodied by Trump in the White House.
A 2018 study in the Journal of GLBT Family Studies revealed "higher levels of stress pertaining to sexual orientation rumination, daily experiences of harassment/discrimination, [and] more symptoms of depression and anxiety" in the aftermath of the 2016 election. A similar study in Child & Adolescent Psychiatry & Mental Health, published that same year, revealed outsized increases in stress levels among women and non-white participants, both of whom were more likely to report anxiety and depression.
Age is also a factor here. A 2018 study in Psychoneuroendocrinology revealed elevated cortisol levels among young adults—a finding that tracks with the outsize relationship between the political climate and stress among the so-called "Generation Z" and "Millennial" generations uncovered in the 2018 American Psychological Association stress survey.
"Individual responses to sociopolitical events, like an election, are not distributed evenly across different groups of people," Lindsay Hoyt, the lead author of the Psychoneuroendocrinology paper, told PsyPost. "In terms of this study, we found that most individuals reported an increase in negative mood in the days leading up to the election, and a spike on election night, but, overall, emotional and physiological responses were largely dependent upon gender, ethnicity/race, and political attitudes."
The causal relationship between a Trump-related anxiety and health problems is relatively clear; the culpability of the Trump administration in "making" Americans crazier is less so. The Child & Adolescent Psychiatry & Mental Health study notes that, following the 2008 presidential election, supporters of Republican presidential candidate John McCain showed a higher stress-related cortisol than those who voted for Barack Obama. And a 2010 study, also in Psychoneuroendocrinology, notes that "Societal shifts in political dominance can impact biological stress responses in voters whose political party becomes sociopolitically subordinate." Put simply: To the victor go the physiological spoils.
Except that, in the case of the Trump administration, those spoils came with significant consequences for the "sociopolitically subordinate"—namely, those minority or marginalized populations who didn't vote for Trump. It's not just the promulgation of public policies threatening traditionally targeted populations (see: the so-called "religious liberty" doctrine), or the rollback of civil rights protections. It's also the culture that's increasingly emerged following Trump's presidency: Inter-social oppression, from bullying in the schoolyard to hate crimes in the streets, have only increased since Trump took office.
This creates a constant environment of stress, one that "can have negative health effects on people who have been direct targets of what they perceive as hostility or discrimination and on individuals and communities who feel vulnerable because they belong to a stigmatized, marginalized, or targeted group," according to a New England Journal of Medicine survey of research. Heightened racial hostility has a documented impact on cortisol levels among vulnerable populations.
While Trump supporters may have experienced a boost in "psychological well-being, pride, and hope for the future," in the words of the New England Journal of Medicine researchers, his presidency has been a pit of despair for others.