Calming the Storm

gazelle running“Why do I always feel so worked up? Why can’t I just relax?”

Our bodies are blessed with a “fight, flight, or freeze” response system. It’s a chemical chain of events that kicks in during times of urgency. Animals in the wild most clearly demonstrate its value. Engaging a foe, running from a predator, and freezing to become invisible are all practices that increase longevity. They are essential to survival. Such physical activity also uses up the chemicals that pump up the response.

With human beings, how it might be funneled into survival is not always clear-cut, especially following disaster. At first a course of action may be obvious, like gathering up loved ones and/or possessions, getting out of harm’s way, or helping with sandbags or rescue efforts. At other times, it means a lot of sitting around: hunkering down in a shelter, anticipating news of what happened or if you can go home, and waiting for relief resources to move in.

After the storm passes, additional considerations emerge:

  • How widespread is the damage?
  • What happened to the rest of my family and friends?
  • How are our lives going to be affected by this?
  • Are we going to make it?
  • Is it really over?
  • Will it happen again?

Such worries pump up our bodies for action. It’s the same as a gazelle out on the savannah, running from a lion. During disaster there generally isn’t any lion for us to run from, perhaps not even an idea of what could be done at the moment. The result is that dealing with disaster can turn into sitting and stewing in our own juices. Doing so brings about a host of physical, mental, and behavioral ailments. Those of us who go through severe trauma during a disaster are especially at risk.

Suppose you witnessed someone getting injured, got injured yourself or barely made it out alive, had a loved one who was hurt or killed, or watched your entire home destroyed. During extreme experience, the “fight, flight, or freeze” network may put certain mental processing on hold. The brain’s strategy is actually rather clever. It protects us from coming directly face to face with potentially incapacitating horror. We temporarily “blank out” related sensation, or become unable to remember what happened. We could feel like we’re in a daze, or unable to feel anything for a while. During crisis, the brain’s strategy clears the way for diving into hard-wired protective behaviors, such as running or defending ourselves, rather than getting caught up in chaotic thoughts and feelings.

The good news: Over time, more usual thoughts, feelings, and memories move in and replace the shutting down. In most cases natural resilience kicks in and takes care of this for us. Our resilience brings it all back, piece by piece—so long as we don’t push ourselves to face things before we’re ready. If the return becomes too difficult or slow to materialize, especially when there is severe trauma, some find traditional mental health support useful. Brief use of medications during initial high arousal can also keep more severe reactions from getting out of hand.

However, for most of us, it’s run of the mill “all juiced up and no place to go.” Activity is the best remedy. If you have cleanup to do, go for it, or any other physical recovery tasks that need taking care of. If your own situation requires little at the moment, see if you can help others with theirs. If nothing else, long walks work great, not to mention the value of getting back into previously enjoyed sports activities or exercise routines.

lions relaxingTaking regular breaks from disaster helps put a damper on the “juice” build-up. Find something to do every day that temporarily gets you away from disaster recovery activity:

  • Favorite family activities
  • Going places you like to visit
  • Past routine, such as shopping, taking a nap, or getting a haircut
  • Pastimes you’ve used before when you take breaks
  • Escaping into fiction, such as reading books, watching movies, or playing videogames

There’s no need to constantly dwell on the disaster. It will still be there when you get back from your break. If you cannot find a way to physically escape reminders, relaxation exercises and meditation practices are useful.

For More Information

For more on coping with trauma, see “Coping with Stress After a Traumatic Event,” provided by Centers for Disease Control.

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