Emotional and behavioral reactions are normal and common in a disaster
It's "healthy and appropriate" to mourn losses
Getting back to your routine can be important
Oral or written storytelling can help you heal
For too many, the past few days have been some of the toughest in recent memory.
We gasped at the approach of a monster storm, no less formidable because of its casual moniker. In the days leading up to its arrival, our friends and family in the East prepared as best as they could. Then they hunkered down as Sandy wreaked havoc in a crazed rumpus.
Millions have begun to take the first steps on the road to recovery, daunting as it may be.
Stress and anxiety are a given in the aftermath of a natural disaster – particularly for those living in shelters; those still lacking power; those attempting to return to work with no transit system; or those who must deal with insurance companies – or worse.
Short-term emotional and behavioral reactions are both common and normal following a natural disaster, says Richard Heaps, a clinical psychologist and professor at Brigham Young University’s counseling psychology department. Heaps has served as a disaster mental health volunteer with the American Red Cross since 1992.
“It’s OK to mourn losses,” says Heaps. “It’s not an abnormal reaction, but healthy and appropriate.”
Heaps and Melissa Brymer, director of Terrorism and Disaster Programs at the UCLA/Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, offer advice and strategies for stress management following natural disasters:
1. Keep in touch
Connection and communication are both critical right now, says Brymer.
People experiencing strong emotional reactions may sometimes withdraw and pull inside themselves, Heaps says. This gets in the way of managing and dealing with the stress of traumatic incidents. “These people may avoid threat, but they also avoid healing,” he says.
Do not withdraw from important relationships, recommends Heaps. Keep in touch with the people you are worried about, so that you know what is happening instead of continuing to worry.
If necessary, find ways of connecting that require less energy, suggests Brymer. Send a text message. Use social media. There may be ways that work better for you than picking up a phone.
What’s key, she says, is the connection, whatever form it may take.
Brymer also emphasizes the importance of connecting with your local community. “If you are relying too much on national networks, it will be difficult to find out what’s happening in your area,” she says. Connecting on a local level can help ease worries by providing important updates that are relevant to you.
2. Take care of yourself and get back to routines
As we strive for a return to normalcy, there may be a tendency toward over-work, particularly for those involved in some way in cleanup and recovery efforts.
Important though your job may be, Brymer suggests taking the time to care for yourself. “Think about what you’re eating. Do your best to sleep enough. Consider whether there are any major decisions that you can put off right now.”
We often do not recognize that the additional nuisances we have to deal with following a natural disaster can wear on us, says Brymer. “It’s important to actively take care of yourself.”
According to Heaps, reestablishing routines and returning to old patterns is important because they can serve as a signal that we are moving past the trauma.
Heaps also advises returning to normal eating and activity patterns – and especially sleep patterns – to the best of your ability.
“Some people find it difficult to do these things when they are stressed, but the more you return to these patterns, the more you return to normal,” he says. “These routines will help your body and mind to function better.”
3. Process through storytelling
Storytelling – orally, in writing, or whatever other form it may take – can be healing. Make an effort to talk to friends or family about what you experienced or write down your thoughts and ideas in a journal or diary.
“Communicating their thoughts and feelings helps people understand the reality of what they have experienced. It also opens the door to the possibility of moving forward past the trauma,” says Heaps.
4. Honor other ways of coping
Brymer emphasizes that there is no one way of coping. “One thing we have learned is that individuals, even members of the same family who went through the same disaster together, have different ways of expressing themselves about the event,” she says.
Don’t assume that others will feel or react the same way you will. Each one of us has been impacted in a different way and we must accept that others may have their own way of expressing themselves.
If someone needs a longer period of time before they can talk about what has happened, be OK with that, says Brymer. Be willing to listen when they are ready. You can check in with them frequently by asking, “How are you doing right now?”
5. Limit exposure
Many of us have been glued to our various media screens for updated images and news about the disaster and rescue efforts. Brymer suggests curbing that inclination because “ongoing exposure can make some people even more anxious and worried.”
6. Practice calming and relaxation methods
What can you do to help alleviate anxiety in the moment?
Both Heaps and Brymer suggested finding ways to calm yourself during anxious moments. This can take many forms, including deep breathing or meditation. Some people like music or singing. Others prefer praying. Whatever works best for you is the one you should be doing.
When we are distressed, we take rapid and shallow breaths. Brymer suggests taking time out throughout the day to breathe in and out slowly. Pay particular attention to breathing out, she says.
Or try this exercise: Tense your muscles and then relax them. This helps people identify where the tension may lie in their bodies and tightening the muscles may help people relax them more effectively, says Heaps.
“You may also distract yourself,” advises Brymer. “Remind yourself that you are OK right now, that you are safe. And keep repeating it, if you need to. Because more than likely, you are safe. Self-talk can be very helpful.”
7. Lend a hand in any way you can
“Service is a therapeutic activity,” says Heaps. “Some people find it difficult to accept help. It’s important to accept help, but it is equally important to help others.”
Both Heaps and Brymer suggest seeking support from mental health professionals if stress reactions to the disaster feel overwhelming or continue long-term.