When the Disasters Keep Happening;
Tips for Doing More Than Surviving
Submitted by: Dr. Susan Pinco, LCSW
None of us has been untouched by the onslaught of recent disasters, many closer to home than we'd ever imagined. Hurricanes, floods, earthquakes; all this and manmade tsunamis too, war, civil unrest, hatred, bigotry and terrorism. It can begin to feel like the seven plagues that are spoken of in the Bible.
And yet, in those quite moments when the 24 hour news cycle has been muted or turned off there is the possibility for connection, to ourselves and to others. There is the possibility that our nervous systems, which have been on hyper-alert; a state that drains us of energy and emotional elasticity, will begin to "down-regulate" so that we can take deep breaths and begin to recognize that we are, in this moment, ok and that we are not alone.
In those moments we can breathe sighs of relief as we hear about friends and family who have been in the eye of the storm and survived. Other shifts occur as we hear of power being restored, repairs to structures being made; stories of neighbors coming together in community cooking on gas powered stoves and sharing food from quieted refrigerators and freezers. Stories of people finding sanctuary in museums where there is respite from the heat, communicating with love ones on Wifi as they recharge their phones and their own internal batteries.
There are stories of heroism large and small; acts of kindness; time spent with families without the modern distractions of email, the internet and 24 hour TV.
As I think back on the past month 11 months, where we have all been buffeted by the political divide in this country, and more recently, where my travels have taken me; to Manchester Uk, London and the South of France (all sites of recent terrorist attacks) the thing that is most vivid for me are the lessons I learned during 9/11:
1. People are incredibly resilient AND that resilience is amplified exponentially when you are able do something; collect money for donations, cook a meal for directly impacted individuals, work at the site, collect items for donations, organize protests… whatever feels right for you, your children, your family and your friends. Being in action is an antidote to feelings of powerlessness. It also helps to rewrite the narrative.
2. Children do best when the adults around them, particularly their parents, manage their own feelings. If the adults are anxious the children will be. That being said, it is important to be honest as children will know when you are lying. If you are anxious, share with them that you are worried but are taking steps to help yourself feel better and that there are many people who will make sure that the family is ok. Engage yourselves and the children in activities, be it drawing pictures and talking, doing something to help address the challenges that your community faces, or simply doing something that changes the focus and is fun.
3. Don't watch TV news. The broadcasters all speak in tones and tempos that invite anxiety and the visuals, which go directly to the emotional core of our brains, the limbic system, stimulate an abundance of stress hormones.
4. Take "small bites". Break your day down into small manageable chunks so that you can celebrate completion of tasks/activities, and avoid overwhelm.
5. Slow down, find or make quiet moments where you can feel the breeze blowing around you, hear the water fall in a pocket park, fountain, shower or sink, feel your feet touching the inside of your shoes, feel the muscles in your feet as you wiggle your toes, hear the swoosh of the traffic, really taste the next bite of food that you take, notice the muscles in your face move as emotions shift inside you. Even 2 minutes of slowing down a few times a day will make a difference.
6. Take a break, whatever that means for you. Listen to music, go on a road trip for the day or a weekend, go to a movie, read a novel, go for a walk. Take periodic breaks from your routine, especially if you are someone who works hard to help others.
7. If you have a spiritual practice, utilize it. If not, develop a ritual. It can be anything from kissing your family hello and good-bye each time your leave to meditating at a particular time to lighting a candle. Rituals help give structure and meaning to our lives.
8. Connect with others. Hugs; giving and getting are grounding and they help regulate our nervous systems. One ritual we had at ground zero was to hug each other, and to hug everyone we stopped to talk with at the site, assuming they were open to it. I can't begin to describe how profoundly helpful it was, particular to the men who were working so hard in the rescue and recovery efforts. (A 60 second hug releases oxytocin, a hormone that helps regulate stress hormones and promotes bonding and connection.)
9. Appreciate that despite the capriciousness of nature and the occasional cruelty and callousness of man, people for the most part, really do come together to solve problems and restore communities.
10. Know that whatever your reaction, it is "normal". Often lack of sleep coupled with an abundance of cortisol, a stress hormone, cause us to have trouble remembering what we were doing a moment ago or where we put things. This can leave us feeling as if we are going crazy. But we're not, it's simply that our hippocampus is not working as it normally does, limiting our ability to store and retrieve information. Drink plenty of water, do light exercise and follow at least 2-3 of the recommendations above and you will begin to feel and function better.
11. Remember that in stressful times it is difficult to process and retain information. With that in mind, don't try and absorb all that I have suggested here. Pick 2-4 of the items listed above, re-read them daily and do your best to implement them.
12. If you are unsure how you are coping and need the help of a professional, please reach out.