In the Trump era, all of us who care about good government, ethical leadership, and the state of American democracy are living with health-damaging chronic stress. One antidote is a good dog, the greatest stress-reliever known to humankind.
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Years ago, our family moved back to Michigan from North Hollywood, California. My wife, Norma, was in our Dodge Omni with the two kids. I was leading the way in a giant U-Haul truck with our dog, Fido, riding shotgun. Yes, his real name was Fido, a name I had been set on long before I picked him out of the barking, yipping gaggle of hoping-to-be-rescued canines at a Phoenix dog pound. He was the only one who was calm and quiet.
Fido was a black, gray and white Australian Shepherd mix who had turned 16 years old just before we began this trip. Everyone loved him for his universal trusting acceptance of all humans. He was a great dog who rescued me when he was just six months old. When I got married, Fido held several years’ seniority over Norma and the girls, but he decided to grandfather them into the family as equal members, with all the same rights, benefits and protections he enjoyed.
The age of 16 is old for any dog. Fido was movin’ slow and had the usual senior aches and pains. During a pit stop at an Iowa rest area, while emerging from the elevated U-Haul passenger seat for a bathroom break and a little olfactory stimulation, he experienced a hard landing on the pavement. From that point, he was supersensitive to any touch or movement, whimpering in anguish at the slightest shift in position.
We immediately found a local veterinarian and got a diagnosis. Fido had wrenched his back in the fall, which produced a pinched nerve in the spine. Any minor movement prompted an additional, intense shot of pain.
The good doctor also noted that Fido was now on high alert for flashes of distress. He was so stressed about the expectation of pain that the tension itself was hurting him. It was causing his body to overproduce doggie cortisol, which intensified his existing discomfort and caused him to “catastrophize” that more hurtin’ was always imminent. The poor guy’s stress and physical suffering were feeding each other.
The cycling of severe chronic stress like this over time ultimately causes serious physical (and mental) health problems. This can happen at any age, and not only to dogs.
National Chronic Stress
In the Trump era, that is, the Trump presidency, all of us who care about good government, ethical leadership, and the state of American democracy are living in fear, which is causing persistent tension. Like any other source of long-term stress, it is threatening real harm to our physical and mental well-being.
It’s important to differentiate acute from chronic stress. Acute stress is what occurs when we disturb a bear on the trail or realize we’ve stepped into the path of a speeding car. Cortisol release kicks in and we immediately leave the bear’s personal space or jump out of the street without even thinking about it. Events like these trigger the well-known fight-or-flight response. Since it’s not smart to fight with a large angry creature of the forest or a speeding vehicle, we choose flight in these circumstances. The fight-or-flight response is as old as humankind and has ensured our survival as a species.
Chronic stress was not meant to be a human survival mechanism. Prolonged cortisol production by the body is a distortion of this mechanism. Chronic — long-term — stress results from ordeals like a troubled marriage, an abusive boss or lasting financial problems. The body thinks it’s releasing cortisol and other stimulant hormones for a momentary crisis. In the short run, these hormones support attention, alertness and a call to action. In the long run, they put negative tension on every bodily function, which produces blood pressure problems, sleep disruption, fatigue, a weakened immune system, increased infections, anxiety, depression, anger, lack of focus, memory loss, hair loss and other issues.
This is what we’re living with in Trump’s America. Every day brings additional chaos, another crisis, another presidential embarrassment on the world stage. President Trump has a strategy — to cause so much confusion and havoc that it all runs together, with each new atrocity causing us to forget yesterday’s. This works well with Donald’s supporters and the large bloc of casual news consumers who can’t or refuse to keep up because it is so disturbing and time-consuming to do so.
Make no mistake, however: the latest Trumpian horror might be glossed over by tomorrow’s White House crisis, but the accompanying stress on the national psyche will not. It will continue to accumulate. Even Donald’s supporters suffer psychic damage resulting from their constant repression of cognitively dissonant information. Like Fido’s continual worrying about when the next excruciating pinch to the nerve in his spine will occur, most Americans are walking around in a diseased state of habitual anxiety, exacerbated by the significant fear of what The Donald will do next and how much pain it will cause the country.
One Week’s Worth of National Cortisol
Of course, not only the president’s atrocious behavior hurts us. All his Republican supporters in Congress, the White House, and the Cabinet have been given the go-ahead from the top that boorish, incompetent, autocratic, corrupt actions are acceptable — just try not to be caught. So those of us who care about these things suffer chronic stress produced by the whole of Trump’s government.
As I’ve often pointed out before, the events from any one particular week in the era of Trump usually contain more stress-producing controversy and corruption than in eight years of other presidencies. This week is no different.
Trump’s White House physician had to withdraw his name from consideration for Veterans Affairs secretary amid allegations of toxic leadership, freewheeling distribution of prescriptions, and extreme alcohol abuse on the job. The administration applied zero vetting to Ronny L. Jackson. Thankfully, Dr. Ronny was exposed before his confirmation could go through, though Trump blames the messengers (Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and the media) for his withdrawal. Mr. Jackson’s fall also included losing his position as White House physician. It has become legend that most of those drawn into Donald’s orbit are eventually violently ejected from it, with their reputations thoroughly soiled.
This week on Fox News’ Fox and Friends, the president called in to his favorite show to rant about all the things upsetting him. Much of it was humorous. But his dictatorial threat toward his own Department of Justice was disturbing: “And our Justice Department — which I try and stay away from, but at some point I won’t.” Even the Fox News hosts were visibly rattled. Trump has taken significant actions and has made numerous threats to shut down the Russia investigation. This alone has half the country chronically stressed about either a constitutional crisis damaging our democracy or Donald getting away with corruption, Russian conspiracy, and obstruction of justice.
Then there are the Twitter-threats of nuclear attacks and trade wars.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is currently under investigation for 10 or more instances of corruption, self-enrichment, and profligate spending. And he’s still in office. Even in the Trump Cabinet, several leaders have been let go for less. Add to this the tremendous damage Pruitt is doing to the environment and our national health by rolling back protective regulations. Is Pruitt going to get away with his corruption? Will the nation be poisoned permanently by the next egregious elimination of industry regulations to please Pruitt-Trump corporate buddies and supporters? Will Fido ever be free from worrying about the next jostling of his pinched nerve?
The GOP leaders of the House Intelligence Committee closed their Russia investigation with a report determining there was no collusion or cooperation between Team Trump and the Russians. Even though Democrats released their own “Minority Report” listing the many Republican committee leadership failures to follow up on leads and pursue evidence, the damage still stands: a formal congressional committee has ignored all the evidence and let the president get away with crimes.
Here’s one more incident for this week (though these are not all of them). Members of the House Republican far-right Freedom Caucus have drafted and floated a set of working articles of impeachment naming Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, ostensibly for not turning over DOJ Russia investigation documents that it wants. Rosenstein is obligated to protect the investigation and these secret documents from House GOP leakage. The Freedom Caucus cries for transparency, but they really want to obstruct or shut down the investigation. With Rosenstein gone, the White House could insert a deputy AG — to oversee the special counsel — who is sympathetic to the president rather than the rule of law. These articles of impeachment will never get anywhere in Congress, but — like the GOP Intel. Committee Russia Report — they are a great messaging and propaganda tool for Team Trump.
Take Care of Yourself
The largest source of chronic stress for me and others is the fear that Donald will get away with his crimes and do irreparable damage to the United States government. We are putting all of our faith in Special Counsel Bob Mueller, as well as voters in the 2018 midterm elections. Even if they ultimately come through, we still have a lot of pressure to withstand.
Until then, take care of yourself. Observe tension-reduction recommendations in the areas of exercise, sleep hygiene, and proper nutrition. Learn to meditate. Expose yourself to nature. Get organized. Take breaks. Moderate the use of alcohol and other chemicals. Adjust perspective. Establish boundaries — especially with Trump supporters you’re forced to endure.
Eventually, Fido was able to settle down and de-stress, with some initial help from a doggie sedative. The pinched nerve in his spine ultimately relaxed, and his constant fear of the next jolt of agony subsided. We were able to help him interrupt the stress-pain cycle, and he had a comfortable trip the rest of the way home.
Sadly, two months after returning to Michigan, we had to put our cherished companion down. One morning his back legs stopped working, and we determined that his pain in living was greater than the heartsickness we would suffer from saying goodbye.
Norma and I gently petted him and whispered to him and cried like babies while our new vet of two months administered the barbiturate cocktail. Our precious family member drifted into a peaceful, permanent sleep. When it was over, we left through a back exit designed especially for newly mourning pet owners, so we wouldn’t have to face those happy humans in the waiting room whose animal loved ones were still with them. When Fido’s ashes came via FedEx, we spread them over his favorite swimming hole where he had spent many happy hours retrieving tennis balls from the water.
Good boy, Fido.
A good dog is the greatest stress-reliever known to humankind. ■
May 3, 2018 at 4:30 pm
This article will touch your heart and your soul. I couldn’t get through it without crying.
What an amazing analogy to what we are experiencing today!
Excellent article JT!