NEW YORK ― The night Donald Trump was elected, Sofia, a 33-year-old woman in Tulsa, Oklahoma, started having trouble breathing.
The daughter of Indian immigrants, Sofia is one of very few brown women in a sea of white people. And two-thirds of Oklahoma had voted for Trump, despite some of his xenophobic and anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric.
“I don’t have the benefit of blending in, because of the color of my skin,” said Sofia, an attorney who asked that her last name be withheld. “So all of a sudden I was hyper-aware of what that could mean. Is this what people actually think of me? Do I need to be scared for my safety?”
Sofia had gone to a friend’s house to watch election results and ― she thought ― to celebrate Hillary Clinton’s win. As the night went on and swing states started to break for Trump, she couldn’t stop thinking about her family. Her parents live in a very white, conservative town in Florida, and speak with heavy Indian accents.
The feeling of intense worry, she said, reminded her of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, when she couldn’t get in touch with her sister on the East Coast ― only this time, no one in the room could relate. “It was like a 9/11 had happened, but it hadn’t happened to anyone else around me,” she said.
In the weeks that followed, Sofia battled depression and anxiety. She had difficulty breathing and felt like she was constantly on the verge of a panic attack. She began to see a therapist and started taking an antidepressant. She had become paranoid about all of her interactions with people ― her co-workers, friends, strangers ― especially those who voted for Trump.
“There would be times I’d be like, ‘Oh, that person is looking at me differently,’” she said. “I found myself in bed a lot, not wanting to be around people. Even our friend group.”
Sofia wasn’t alone. The American Psychological Association found in its annual stress survey this year that for the first time in 11 years, more Americans (63 percent) reported being stressed about politics and the future of the nation than about money (62 percent). From August 2016 to January 2017, stress levels in the United States jumped from an average of 4.8/10 to 5.1/10 ― across all demographics and political parties. And a majority of adults (59 percent) said this is the lowest point in the nation’s history. (The APA reportedly hasn’t asked that particular question before, so we don’t know how that sentiment compares to earlier years.)
The rise in stress levels is “a statistically significant increase,” said Dr. Vaile Wright, director of research at the APA. “And it wasn’t just young adults ― it was all adults across all generations and across party lines.”
Wright said she’s been hearing from psychiatrists and therapists that patients are coming in “very stressed” about politics. The most commonly reported symptoms, she said, include “sadness, anxiety, fatigue and anger.”
“Starting last spring, we were hearing from our members that therapy patients were coming in with increasing anxiety related to the election, in particular,” she said. “Particularly marginalized groups who were being targeted ― undocumented individuals, immigrants, women with sexual assault history, and children.”
People who work in fields related to science and the environment have also been panicking over Trump’s presidency, as they watch him appoint Cabinet members who deny climate change and devalue science. David Haffner, a 44-year-old contractor for NASA, said that after Trump’s victory, he was depressed, traumatized and worried about his professional future.
“I felt like someone had raided my house,” he said. “It felt like a violation, which is kind of a weird thing to feel about your elected leader.”
Now, one year after the election, Haffner has found ways to cope. He learned to stop staring at his Twitter feed all day and obsessively following the news, because it was affecting his mental health. Still, “I don’t want to lose touch with what’s happening because ‘OK now, I feel better,’” he said. “I think it’s important to kind of take stock now and then, but maybe not every single frickin’ moment of the day.”
Sofia, too, had to distance herself from political news and social media. She channeled some of that energy into making playful greeting cards with positive messages for her friends. By Thanksgiving 2016, she had started her own greeting card company, Jujuu.
“I just started doodling,” she said. “Then I made my first website and started an Etsy shop. It was keeping me busy, and then by my birthday in January I was like, ‘I’m gonna keep after this.’”
Sofia is now weaning off the medication she’d started taking for depression and anxiety, and is beginning to feel hope again. Her gradual recovery seems to mirror the rest of America’s. The APA found in its most recent survey that stress levels in August 2017 had returned to where they were a year prior, after the spike in January.
But Wright warned that many people are not out of the woods. Hate crimes, though less frequent now than at the beginning of the year, are still happening across the country ― especially at K-12 schools ― at higher levels than before Trump became president. And therapists are still reporting long lines for appointments.
The takeaway, Wright said, is that people experiencing election-related mental health issues are not alone. And there is light at the end of the tunnel.
“The message we want to get out to people is that even if we’re feeling that way, to not give up hope,” she said, “and to take active steps to manage the stress we’re feeling in these uncertain times.”
This article has been updated to remove certain identifying details to protect the privacy of a source.