About Laurel Hughes, Psy.D.

Laurel Hughes is a retired disaster mental health manager. She has worked in disaster for both government and nonprofit organizations, and has developed numerous materials for her field.

Lemonade Recipe–for Pandemic Loneliness

In the Keepers series, Sarah Turner is no stranger to loneliness. Hers, however, is not caused by quarantines and social distancing.

We can feel lonely even while standing in a crowded room. Likewise, many people experience their alone time as a welcome opportunity for peaceful solitude, rather than isolation and misery.

Loneliness is a state of mind. It’s about how connected you feel with others, regardless of how many people surround you or the number of “likes” you get on social media. It’s about quality of relating to others, not quantity.

This is what happened with our Sarah. She downplayed the importance of intimacy in her life in order to to focus on pressing long-term goals. Realizing what she had done, as well as the job of reconnecting with important others, carries her through at least three novels.

During this pandemic, social distancing stems from safety issues. But we need not feel lonely. Thanks to modern technology, there are many ways to reach out and connect with friends and relatives.

Yet one of the most healing remedies for loneliness lies elsewhere. It’s about discovering recognition that we are part of something much bigger: common humanity. Feeling lonely is difficult when we see ourselves as ongoing members of a larger, significant whole. How can we use extra time on our hands to do good?

Virtual groups and organizations abound. Options for joining online groups that make a difference are endless. We need not be physically or even virtually together to benefit. Merely knowing we are part of something purposeful, meaningful, and bigger than ourselves is key. Most likely, the current civil rights protests are at least partially fueled by human resilience seeking relief by joining a greater good.

We dare not pass up this opportunity to brew the lemonade that quenches the thirst of struggling common humanity. There are so many worthy causes we can become part of. In addition to relieving loneliness, the passion and energy created by our joint gut reactions can lead us to safe and productive paths for reform, no matter what our cause:

  • more effectively communicating our concerns with those who lead,
  • helping productive officials get elected,
  • participating in referendum efforts,
  • supporting programs that help heal divides or address other issues,
  • using craft skills to produce items to donate to needy others,
  • bringing to light social science or medical findings that apply,
  • joining book review clubs and other relevant discussion groups, and
  • supporting and performing research that helps understand and remedy your concern.

Complaining about and protesting against social problems does indeed help bring them to light. However actions that directly tweak the problems are an entirely different kettle of fish.

Sarah discovers multiple opportunities for addressing her loneliness. Where might your own opportunities lie?

Covid-19 and Political Divisiveness: Peas in a Pod

These days, real world disasters are stranger than any fictional ones I might dream up for the adventures of my protagonists, Sarah and Paulson. So my writing has taken a hiatus back into the realm of nonfiction. They will return, however.

For my latest nonfiction effort regarding Covid-19 and political divisiveness, see my post at www.thecogjameffect.com.

Harvey and the Rest of Us

In spite of mayhem already wreaked by Hurricane Harvey, we do not yet know what its total impact will be. Right now, those in the path of rising waters are still focused on seeking safety and self-protection – as they well should be. That’s fight or flight chemistry at work.

Eventually the waters will recede. Recovery efforts will begin. And as occurred after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, we can expect many devastated survivors to take to the four winds as they seek temporary refuge or a new life elsewhere. We will likely meet them locally.

What can we do to make a difference? Yes, we can volunteer services that will help them get back on their feet. But what about the emotional consequences of their experiences, ones that social connections play a such a huge role in alleviating? Is there any way we can help?

The answer is right there, at our fingertips. We can share what we’ve learned in our fight with “cogjam,” those cognitive logjams we sometimes fall victim to with ongoing socio-political stress.

No, cogjam is nowhere near as devastating as what those in Texas are going through. But emotional coping is the same, regardless of the disaster: compassion, self-awareness, perspective taking, prayer, mindfulness, conscious effort to move forward, or whatever else helps you find inner peace.

What have you learned from your experiences with cogjam? How has it affected you? What are your solutions for coping, or defeating it overall?

We can share what we’ve learned. Likewise, they may be willing to share what they’ve learned. They will find personal strengths they never knew they had in their process of escaping catastrophe and moving forward.

It’s a win-win for everybody.

For information about providing psychological first aid for disaster survivors, see handouts listed at http://www.who.int/mental_health/world-mental-health-day/2016/en/.

Cogjam Alert: Your Chance to Be Part of the Solution

It’s safe to say most everyone wouldn’t mind if all the political posturing and divisiveness took a sudden nosedive into the sunset. As mentioned in an earlier post, healing for this mental health disaster is a work in progress. Thanks to resilience, many of us have already found ways to step back, or do whatever else might tone down knee-jerk reactions from our overextended fight-or-flight chemistry.

One popular collection of strategies involves limiting input from sources that tend to pump up this type of stress:

  • Following only enough media reports to be informed
  • Being especially selective about which social media contacts’ newsfeeds to follow
  • While among others, simply not bringing up anything related to the socio-political situation

. . . and plenty more. My current draft of The Cogjam Effect includes suggestions similar to those above. Many people are discovering new ways to apply strengths, and doing it well. With this in mind, perhaps you have suggestions to add:

  • What have you noticed about your own coping?
  • What helps you calm the primitive brain’s surges of angst when toxic input crosses your path?
  • What new strengths have you discovered in yourself as you travel this journey?
  • Or, what do you see others do that seems to make things less tense?

This is your chance to share the wealth with those who are searching. Assessing your existing or newly emerging  strengths is also an important step for laying to rest your own symptoms of cogjam. Please leave suggestions or observations in the box below–a great way to be part of the cogjam solution.

 

The Healing Nature of Purpose

Stress is more than a feeling or state of mind. It is a physical condition, a neurochemical reaction designed to promote fight, flight, and basic survival.

On the other hand, prolonged stress can have the opposite effect. Ongoing stress without relief creates ongoing inflammation in the body. Long-term Inflammation is associated with a host of ills, such as heart disease and arthritis. Some argue that virtually all disease is caused by inflammation, since it interferes with the effectiveness of the immune system.

Here we are again, finding mental health and physical wellbeing closely intertwined. We can’t avoid assembly linestress in life. But we may be able to do something about stress-induced inflammation. There is some indication that feeling connected to a sense of purpose in life can reduce such inflammation.

How do we find purpose in day to day existence? So much of it can be mundane and repetitive, pursued only to make a buck, or to meet commitments that are not always personally fulfilling.

Continue reading

Think Small, Live Whole

Big things happen. Some big things are bad. So are many of their consequences.

In their aftermath, going from day to day can be challenging. Though a number of such consequences relate to state of mind, many do not. The real world pragmatic impact of disaster and adversity must also be addressed. How we proceed in these tasks may change how we see ourselves. Perhaps for the good: we find resilience we didn’t know we had, and adjust our self-view accordingly.

But change takes getting used to. Is this really me? How do I hang olooking up at treesn to any sense of “me”-ness, when the world that shaped and supported me has crumbled? Must I find something else big, some heavy-duty effort, to compete with the impact of major adversity?

Not really. It’s the little things that bring us back.

Continue reading

Helping Others Regain Their Footing

“I don’t have time to think about how I feel.” The disheveled woman gestures at tornado-ravaged debris that once had been her home. “Look at everything we’re contending with!” Her family members are aimlessly stumbling, poking at this or that. She spends the rest of her day dabbing away grime from salvaged silver.

How do we help those in such circumstances? This week our hearts go out to those learning about destruction and personal loss due to flooding in South Carolina. Where do their feelings leave them? How do we comfort, and help them move on?

When circumstances are overwhelming, it’s easy to get stuck. There is so much to attend to immediately following disaster. Especially if the damage is personally catastrophic:

  • The entire house is gone, and most of what it held.
  • What about the all that paperwork, the ID that tells the world who I am?
  • Where are my insurance papers?
  • What about my job?South Carolina Floods
  • How do I still get to work?
  • Is my place of employment still up and running?
  • My parents! Did they make it out okay?
  • Are they injured? Do they have their heart medications?
  • Where are they, anyway? Did they find a place to stay?
  • Where will my family and I sleep tonight?
  • How will we get food, or changes of clothing?
  • What do we do about money?
  • What about Suzie’s big test next week—her schoolbooks?
  • Is the school even open?

Continue reading

Little Ones and the Unthinkable

Incidents like yesterday’s shooting at Umpqua Community College put our resilience to the test. We will grieve because of it. We will each process the tragic incident in our own way. We continue to move on. Life goes on.

For children, it’s more complicated. Their personal resilience is not yet fully developed. children playingThey rely on their support system’s resilience to get them through disaster. For most, this means turning to parents and other significant adults for comfort and direction.

What should we say to a child when he or she asks about the horrific? Especially when it involves a shooting at a school, an environmental setting that is so prominent in their own lives. We cannot completely hide such incidents from them, given how they promote so much discussion and media coverage. What can we do to help keep a child from becoming an emotional casualty, after the fact? Continue reading

Taking Care of the Helper

“Thanks for all you do.” Those who observe the effort, sacrifice and dedication of workers helping others during adversity often share this sincere appreciation. Their kind words do help.

The most critical need for the helper journey is ongoing restoration of the soul. The spirit of disengagedwhat leads us into public service occasionally needs replenishing. Without it we become depleted, “burnt-out” as labeled by the vernacular. It matters not whether we’re helping as a friend or neighbor, an agency volunteer, or a professional responder.

There isn’t one right answer for how to best avoid burnout. We each find our own answer to the question, “What restores me?” Continue reading

When the Ground Beneath Us Vanishes

Disaster is like that. Trauma often is, as well. It’s like the rug being pulled out from under. All that flying carpetseems solid, all that props up our self image, our routines, the view of our world and our place in it, is suddenly no longer there. We are vulnerable, protective coatings somehow stripped away.

How can we go on, in the face of any adverse life event that has left us feeling so exposed? How do we regain a sense of safety, and wholeness?

An adversity’s rightful place on the shelf of our recollections shifts throughout a lifetime. Still, there are ways to coax back a present sense of wholeness and wellbeing, even after disaster. Continue reading

Why Are There Anniversary Reactions?

Another September 11th has come and gone. Remembrances were shared, stories told, honors given. We pick up, we move on.

Yet feelings may linger. Perhaps it is something you can’t exactly put a finger on–some timevague discomfort. Maybe it’s an unidentifiable sense of loss, anxiety, or anger. Whatever it is, it followed a crescendo as the date approached, and now slowly ebbs as time marches beyond.

Why do anniversary reactions happen? Not just on September 11th, but on any date marking an experience of trauma or loss? Continue reading

PTSD and the Brain

“I heard PTSD is tied to brain damage. Does that mean it’s forever?”

For many years science suggested that once the brain reached maturity, it stopped growing and replacing cells. If a person suffered brain damage, it was thought to be neuronpermanent.

This perspective has changed. We now know neurons in the brain form new connections throughout our lives. New learning is both facilitated and stored by way of such rewiring. Continue reading

The Way of Resilience

If you’ve had anything to do with disaster over the past decade or three, you’ve no doubt run across something called “debriefing.” Critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) started up among firefighters. They used it after especially traumatic responses as a way of tending to unpleasant emotional reactions. They typically got together with their teams and followed a specific discussion protocol, delving into feelings about the incident, then moving toward coping or resolution. They found debriefing very useful for avoiding burnout. Over time, other emergency responders began using the debriefing process.

concentrationEventually groups of disaster and other trauma survivors were collected together and given debriefing. The hope was that it might help them similarly resolve related emotional issues.

Unfortunately, when science caught up and measured the outcome of practicing it among such groups, it found no improvement. Surprisingly, at times it identified more emotional issues among them than among survivors who did not go through debriefing. How could this happen? Continue reading

Trauma, or Broadcast Drama?

fire emergency“What a mess. Those poor people. How horrible. I’d like to help…but wouldn’t I end up just as messed up as the people on TV look? What about vicarious trauma? Compassion fatigue? Even PTSD?”

It’s true. Helping with disaster isn’t for everybody.

However, if you’re never been through disaster, and you base your perspective solely on what you see in the media, you may not have a balanced view. Dramatic scenes of damage, suffering victims, and emotionally overwhelmed emergency responders are the usual favored fare. They get the most press because they sell advertising space better than stories about those who rise to the challenge. Continue reading

What If . . . That Happens to Me?

worried dog“Everything they say about disaster preparedness makes sense. Sad to say, I’ve never had a personal plan. I haven’t given much thought to the possibility of something like that happening to me. It’s embarrassing.”

You are not alone. In fact, you’re normal. Yes, there is no end to the different types of disasters and crises that might crop up in today’s world. However, if we constantly sat around and thought about every possible accident or tragedy, we’d be too petrified to ever leave home. Letting such disturbing concerns benignly simmer somewhere on the back burner allows us go about daily lives without undue distraction.

The idea behind disaster preparedness is not to dwell on it. It is to simply establish a basic plan. Nobody else can build your plans for you. They need to be individualized to suit your circumstances. Continue reading

The Many Faces of Helping Those in Need

“You’re an angel.” The woman nodded, her certainty smiling back at me. “I know you are. I can see it in your eyes.”

rescue dog and handlerIt wasn’t the first time I’d received such a whimsical compliment after an interlude with a disaster survivor. Not that I ever fell into believing I’d donned some form of celestial avatar. I’m your usual mortal, bludgeoning my way through common inadequacies and annoying life foibles, the same as everyone else.

My new friend’s star-struck observation did strike at a chord of truth, one that resonates throughout the realm of addressing disaster needs. Contributions to recovery go beyond the feeding, sheltering, and other concrete resources typically thought of following disaster. Just as important is the intangible. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Getting on Track

closed wallmart“Will things ever be normal again?”

“Normal” is a relative term. Some even argue it’s a figment of our imagination, merely statistical shorthand somebody thought up to more easily make sense of the world. During disaster its slippery nature is glaring.The rug may be repeatedly pulled out from under in ways never imagined possible.

What is normal? Exactly what is it we’re trying to get back to? The murkiness of this dilemma rears its head following any major crisis, no matter whether the disaster is community-wide or singularly personal. There are as many different answers to what it requires as there are people who ask questions.

Does normal mean having things back to how they were before the crisis? Even if all physical consequences and other external trappings of disaster were returned to their unaltered state, this rarely happens. We are no longer who we were before. We experience the world differently. We see vulnerabilities previously ignored. Large boulders roll into our path. The way around them may not be clear. Continue reading