Transgender Stress: How Are You Coping?

| Apr 1, 2019
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You are undoubtedly stressed, how are you coping? It all mounts up. There are the 98 attacks on transgender people by the current administration as documented by GLAAD. Then there are the half dozen states that make us feel unwanted and endanger us if we travel there because we might be denied emergency healthcare or gas or a hotel room. Since I live in the South, they form a wall blocking me from traveling to visit my family in the Western U.S. and were blocking me from family in Virginia. Right now, I count over a half dozen including some surprising ones, like Illinois. Then there is the closer-to-home daily misgendering, rejection by family members and catcalls. Finally, there are the 80% of transgender (some may still consider themselves as crossdressers, not trans) people in hiding who become even more depressed and isolated by such events. No wonder self-harm among transgender people is so frequent.

You can support transgender advocacy to deal with the issues but how can you improve your ability to cope with all this stress? To paraphrase the character Yossarian in the humorous war book Catch-22, I don’t care that the enemy is firing at us, what I care about is that they are firing at me:

“They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly.

“No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.

“Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.

“They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They’re trying to kill everyone.”

“And what difference does that make?” (2.5-10)

You aren’t the only one under stress in the world, soldiers and elite athletes also feel it. What do they do to cope?

Turns out they use a couple of active coping strategies. I am reminded about some smarty pants psychologists who went to lecture and teach coping techniques to Seal Team Six. Turns out that the Team had already mastered these techniques and had some of their own. How is this possible? Turns out that the strategies were not really new, they had been practiced by the Zen and Zen Samurai warriors and passed down through soldier traditions. Athletes have also adapted some of these techniques.

There are two goals of these strategies. The first is to keep a cool head during Samurai battle or Special Operations and during athletic performance. Or — during transgender rejection. The soldiers learned these techniques to be able to think clearly during armed combat to avoid mistakes and make the right actions. Athletes found that the techniques kept them “in the zone” and help their performances. They found that time seemed to almost stand still, allowing them to fluidly adapt their motions.

We now know that these strategies also interfere with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome in which the high stress emotions become connected to particular experiences and stimuli. When the stimuli reappear, so do the emotions, resulting in panic and/or depression. Military doctors used to call this “shell shock” or “battle fatigue” and it probably contributes to athletic “slumps.”

There are two basic strategies. The first is to learn the “relaxation response.” It may not seem that those Samurai or elite athletes are relaxing during a battle or a competition but inside they are. Tensing up interferes with performance in many realms, we usually call it “choking” or “clutching.” When your muscles tense too much, they send feedback to the brain that interferes with mental processes which we sometimes call loss of “focus” or “concentration.”

The relaxation response requires learning. If I tell you that you can learn it from yoga or transcendental meditation, you will probably think that these are used to induce hokey New Age or spiritual experiences or self-hypnotism and you would be right. But they also provide the practical training that is needed for the relaxation response. It is said that the Samurai spend considerable time before battle in meditation to get that “relaxed feeling” that contributes to success. But you can learn it without going to hot yoga or TM classes right in your own home. Lie down on your back and close your eyes. Starting with the muscles of your toes. Tense them for a few seconds, then relax. Remember how that feels. Then do the same with your ankles and so on all the way up to the top of your scalp. It should not take more than a few minutes. Remember how relaxed muscles feel inside your whole body. That is what you are looking for.

I do this when I go to bed, and it helps me with getting to sleep. And it helps to deal with those pesky people who reject me.

Now that you have practiced the relaxation response you need to do it when that grocery clerk misgenders you. See if it does not help you to politely correct them without being nasty and with a smile. But first you may need to start in even easier situations by practicing becoming aware of the relaxation response while taking a walk or reading. Start with something easy situations that, then move on to other, more stressful, rejection encounters. It does not mean turning passive and giving yourself up, but instead it should help you if you want to actively and assertively deal with the situations. Before long, you will be out there offering strong, coherent testimony to those state legislators! You have a secret weapon like the Zen Warriors had — you have the relaxation response.

The second strategy to learn is “positive reinterpretation of events.” no matter how nasty your experiences were, interpret them so that they serve you. Many people complain and report extreme rejection even if it is a trifle. That is known as “awfulizing.” You want to avoid that because it connects and reinforces the event to negative emotions. Next time you have a similar experience, all those negative emotions will come flooding back. Instead of thinking “that checkout clerk deliberately assaulted me by misgendering me,” you can think that “the clerk does not know any better.” Or “I am glad that I do not do similar things to others.” Now you may think that you may be worried that you will lose the memory of such encounters — a thing psychiatrists call “repressed memories” in psychobabble. But you won’t forget them, you will just not feel so bad when you remember them and your reinterpretation. Live and learn, but reinterpret first, to learn the right lesson — there is nothing wrong with you, it is the culture.

In addition to reinterpretation thinking, you will need to talk to friends, buddies, support group members or even a shrink, using the reinterpretation and getting validation. (Your shrink may be amazed at your resilience.) Soldiers talk with each other about their activities all the time as well as how they feel about them. Of course, people following the masculine gender category may have subtle ways of expressing emotion in conversation. They are trying to validate their feelings by acceptance from their friends. They will use humor to make light of the situation. But don’t use humor that may interfere with establishing positive relations with that grocery clerk. The clerk certainly has their own problems and may be dwelling on them at work. Next time, carefully explain why misgendering hurts you and how it reflects on them as being intolerant. It’s worth a try but remember to first invoke the relaxation response. You will be able to perform better and not lose your temper.

FAIR WARNING: Here is your psychology lesson for today. We have extreme emotions due to stress, both agitation and depression. We need to use coping techniques to interfere with the body’s tendency to attach these extreme emotions to experiences. Remembering these experiences can then cause us to relive those emotions, which disrupt our lives. This is the essence of PTSD. It is a little more complicated but you remember Pavlov’s dogs. They were conditioned that when they light came on that they would experience eating meat. They made the connection between the stimulus (the light) and a feeling (eating). You can see this when your pet anticipates you feeding them when you start to get out the dog chow. This also works with situations that provoke negative emotions and feelings. It is all unconscious for the animals. But humans have the ability to interfere with the connection and verbally reinterpret the stimulus so it no longer signals the negative emotion.

Staying alive and being transgender is not for the faint of heart, but neither are soldiering or competitive athletics. We should learn from them.

How are you coping?

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Category: Transgender Body & Soul

danabevan

About the Author ()

Dana Jennett Bevan holds a Ph.D. from Princeton University and a Bachelors degree from Dartmouth College both in experimental psychology. She is the author of The Transsexual Scientist which combines biology with autobiography as she came to learn about transgenderism throughout her life. Her second book The Psychobiology of Transsexualism and Transgenderism is a comprehensive analysis of TSTG research and was published in 2014 by Praeger under the pen name Thomas E. Bevan. Her third book Being Transgender was released by Praeger in November 2016. She can be reached at [email protected]

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  1. Norah_joy Norah_joy says:

    Dana, I’m glad you included the transwoman, like me, who have never ventured into the real world as a woman. The stress may be different ( I’ve never experienced the embarrassment of being misgendered), but it’s always there. I might add that the stress and the desire to be female doesn’t lessen with age. Thank you for your very practical advice, reminded me of when I was an athlete; I’ll use the coping techniques you recommend, plus an occasional Xanax. Norah

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