The Stress of a Trump Presidency Is Harming Sexual and Reproductive Health

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For many women, the physical toll of the current administration is chipping away at their reproductive health.

By Rachel Charlene Lewis

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(Photo: Christian Gertenbach/Unsplash)

Many cite the 2016 presidential election as one of the most divisive elections in American history. It was also one of the most stressful. Now, in 2017, the election stress that blanketed Americans across the country has morphed into “Trump stress” as President Donald Trump’s behaviors and policies shape not just the everyday lives of Americans, but even influence our bodies — with some even citing Trump stress as the main cause of stress-related sexual and reproductive health issues.

This year, the American Psychological Association released a report, Stress in America: Coping With Change, which found that 52 percent of American adults say last year’s election was a “very or somewhat significant source of stress.” Democrats were more likely than Republicans (72 percent versus 26 percent) to report the election results specifically as a significant source of stress. Many Democrats assumed that Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 presidential election by a landslide, no question. As a result, Trump’s win came as a surprise, and that surprise didn’t just hit liberals’ psyches, but in some cases also their bodies.

Participating in democratic processes like voting can be inherently stressful. Whether or not one’s preferred candidate loses an election, the process itself can still negatively impact mental and physical health. A 1997 article in The Indian Journal of Psychology found that, following local elections in Rajasthan, a northern Indian state that borders Pakistan, there was a surge in people seeking mental-health services regardless of wins or losses. According to a 2011 report in the journal European Neuropsychopharmacology, researchers studied voters in Israel’s national election and found that, when “faced with stressful experiences, such as uncertainty or novelty, the adrenal glands secrete glucocorticoid hormones to help us cope with stress,” with levels of stress hormone cortisol significantly higher than normal.

The long stretch of this election combined with the shock of Trump’s victory appears to have resulted in the literal embodiment of this political loss even in the most intimate of ways.

Specifically, the actual loss of an election causes a shift in our stress hormones. In a 2010 study in The Official Journal of the International Society of Psychoneuroendocrinology, researchers studied stress levels following the 2008 presidential election between John McCain and Barack Obama. The study looked into the cortisol responses of voters who supported McCain, therefore “losing” the election, versus Obama supporters, who “won” the election. They found that the losers experienced an increase in cortisol levels upon learning the election results, while Obama supporters instead had stable levels.

In their conclusion, the researchers noted that “societal shifts in political dominance can impact biological stress responses in voters whose political party becomes socio-politically subordinate.” Essentially, when we lose elections, the study found, we appear to have a shift in our stress hormones because of the loss of dominance. Here, that loss is a political one, but a personal one as well, especially considering how personal this election got not just for the candidates, but for those of us who felt our identities, and our subsequent worth, hanging in the balance

The effect on sexual and reproductive health isn’t a mental challenge; the impact of a Trump presidency can affect hormone levels that keep reproductive systems functioning properly.

That shift in cortisol throws off the balance of the stress hormones responsible for maintaining sexual and reproductive health. Jennifer Caudle, an assistant professor at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine, explains: “Everything is connected, and stress not just plays a role in how we feel mentally, but can definitely play a role in how our body manifests conditions and diseases.”

“Everything is connected, and stress not just plays a role in how we feel mentally, but can definitely play a role in how our body manifests conditions and diseases.”

A compromised sexual and reproductive health system is often one of the most obvious signs of increased stress levels for the sufferer in question. For example, one main cause of yeast infections is an increase in stress, leading to a weakened immune system and a lessening of naturally occurring vaginal bacteria, leading to an overgrowth of yeast. For some, a Trump presidency means just that.

“I have had two yeast infections in the past couple of months, which is highly unusual, and I think it’s due to the stress I am embodying,” says Andréa, a 22-year-old Latina/Jewish bisexual female. “I went into a shock as soon as [the election result] was finalized. I could not stop bursting into tears for the first few days.”

A 2015 study in the The International Journal on the Biology of Stresssuggested that measures of cortisol may be more closely associated with premenstrual syndrome, or PMS, than other hormones. As PMS may include a variety of symptoms including a shift in discharge and spotting, this means that a cortisol surge can lead to anything from intense discomfort to pain in reproductive and sexual organs.

Allison, a 22-year-old questioning white woman, wrote in an email: “My period came back after 3 months [following] Election Day. I know periods are supposed to be empowering/a sign of feminine unity/yada yada, but it felt like a baseball bat to the uterus.”

For those who have had difficulties with their menstrual cycles, a sharp increase in stress can only confuse the body further, with that increase in cortisol entering a system that’s already out of balance and spinning hormones — and, therefore, the entire cycle, dictated as it is by hormones — out of control.

Hannah*, a 21-year-old queer white female, says that ,because of her period, she couldn’t make it out the door. “I believe the election definitely had a negative impact on my cycle. I have always had problems with my menstrual cycle, but when I got my period this past November, it came early and hard,” she says. “I hadn’t been eating right and was feeling constantly nauseous after the election. For about two days, I was so dizzy and nauseous that I couldn’t get out of bed without feeling lightheaded.”

In addition to those who have suffered physical deficits since the elections, survivors of sexual violence are specifically stressed by Trump’s presidency.

Quinn Gee, a psychotherapist and owner of Healing Hearts Counseling Center, notes that most of her clients who expressed stress over Trump’s election were women and people of color, especially since this population is more likely to include survivors of sexual violence.

As Gee wrote in a direct message over Twitter: “Trump’s remarks definitely have created a wave of [post-traumatic stress disorder]-like responses from women who are survivors. Many women have been enormously triggered and his lack of accountability seems to give license to other offenders, which creates a more immediate, tangible threat to survivors.”

Cade, a 24 year-old-woman, explained why, as a sexual assault survivor, she’s had more frequent nightmares, especially those involving sexual violence. “It stresses me out that our [president] is an accused rapist who has admitted to sexual assault on tape, and nobody seems to care,” she says.

For those with conditions and disabilities that existed prior to Trump’s victory, symptoms seemed to worsen as stress increased.

Cade, who is disabled and has multiple sclerosis, writes that she’s afraid for the future of disability rights and her ability to receive treatment following the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. “I’m horrified by Trump’s treatment of disabled people (specifically his mocking of a disabled reporter) and worried about how disability rights may be impacted by his presidency.” It’s especially concerning considering the effect Trump stress has had on her disability. “In terms of my MS, I’ve noticed that my tremor has been a bit worse, I’ve been more dizzy and experienced more vertigo, I’ve had more frequent (and more severe) migraines, and I’ve noticed my hands and feet (as well as sometimes my legs and arms) going numb more frequently,” she writes.

Both mental- and physical-health conditions can be shaped by stress, with bipolar disorder and manic-depressive episodes intensifying. Sara (not her real name), a 28-year-old heterosexual black woman who was raised Muslim, explains in an email: “I became manic pretty quickly post election. My last manic episode previously had been over a year ago and I was taking my medication regularly, so it was the first time stress was the clear factor behind a manic episode.”

A 2012 study in the journal Political Communication also looked at cortisol responses following the 2008 election, with a focus on conservatives who were upset with Obama’s win. They found an increase in cortisol from those who lost the election, and found it especially notable that this increase occurred independently of whether or not they felt upset by the loss.

While many elections cause stress, it’s important to recognize the specific ways that the Trump presidency has resulted in damaging physical and mental-health symptoms. This embodiment of our country’s failings is a reminder that, for the marginalized, surviving this presidency is revolutionary in itself.

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