Disaster Mental Health–for a Mental Health Disaster

Crazy politics have reached a new high-water mark. Or new low, depending how you look at it. The enduring mental health impact on citizens seems to run the gamut, from general malaise to falling apart at the seams. Could this be the true “disaster?”

This one old disaster mental health soldier suggests yes, it is.

But all is not lost. Simply recognizing the situation to be a disaster is the key first step in overcoming it.

What Makes It a Disaster?

Relief organizations define disaster as incidents that exceed a community’s ability to cope by usual means. Thanks to social media and traditional news outlets alike, we need not look far to find community coping that isn’t doing so hot. Chinks in our collective armor are as pervasive as during the Events of September 11th, Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. Even those convinced that a Molotov cocktail was the only answer to DC gridlock suffer from its aftermath. The malady flourishes on both sides of the fence.

Reams of guidelines address run-of-the-mill natural and man-made disasters. But the system does not have an SOP for disaster healing when the system itself causes disaster.

Identifying how to reduce this unique brand of mass suffering requires thinking outside the box. So as often happens in disaster, we punt.

Nuts and Bolts

The basic thumbnail sketch of mental health disaster recovery doesn’t change much: reduce disaster stress, pump up coping. This, we can do.

A good way to start is by looking at:

  1. lack of control over stressors, and
  2. inability to predict when they will happen.

According to social science, this dynamic duo is what most intensifies the experience of stress. It’s also much of what we’re getting these days—sudden, unpredictable, uncontrollable Twitter or other behaviors from leadership, liberally sprinkled with lashing out and confusing “alternative facts.” Little wonder we struggle.

On the bright side, establishing reliable information about what’s going on around us increases chances of both control and predictability. The following road map provides one path for seeking personal control and predictability during this not-yet-declared mental health disaster.

Stepping onto the Recovery Path

First off, set aside worries that feeling stirred up means something’s wrong with you. No inner experience following disaster is considered “abnormal,” even if it’s thoughts or feelings you’ve never before experienced. We all react and cope the best way we know how. If stress management turns into the apple cart getting uncomfortably wobbly, FEMA, the American Red Cross, mental health organizations, and many others provide excellent resources for coping with disaster. Links are listed at the end of this article.

Next, put to rest what I call the “Bob Newhart effect.” Remember his old comedy shtick, where he feels like the only sane man in an insane world? All the while appearing worried that maybe he’s really the crazy one. Well, take heart, all you Bob Newharts out there. The proverbial Ph.D. isn’t required to assess this one, and mental health professionals agree with your concerns. Something off-kilter is indeed afoot. And the problem is not with you.

This certainly isn’t an uplifting message. Nor is it comforting to have to acknowledge that something important is seriously messed up. Not to mention that we’re forced to live with it for the time being.

However, knowing where we stand is critical to predictability and control. An expected blow has less impact than a sucker punch; slings and arrows bounce off armor that has been reinforced, rather than creating new chinks. Denying existence of the incoming cannot make the reality of it go away.

Our best bet is to expect and prepare for more of the same, each in our own way. Truth be told, our natural resilience is already doing this behind the scenes, experimenting with ways to cope when traversing the unimaginable.

We can do it. And we often find ways to do it well. For trauma does not produce stress alone. It also produces post-traumatic growth. We can use this to our advantage.

Sense of Control

To revive personal empowerment, there are the usual options for when political circumstances play a role:

  • voting practices
  • volunteering with social causes
  • running for office
  • supporting others who seek office

For those so inclined, marches and peaceful demonstrations both communicate concerns and help you know you’ve done what you can. Also, sending views directly to Congress not only helps manage personal stress, but may significantly contribute to the future. Who knows? If everybody demanded that a psychiatric look-see be part of the medical evaluation for determining fitness to command-in-chief, maybe it would come to pass.

Stigma may well prevent such an outcome. But making such suggestions is one sure way to exercise control where influence can be attempted, which in itself reduces stress and revives sense of empowerment.

By the same token, choosing wisely when reacting to others’ anger helps us take control—which brings us to effective disaster coping.

Social Connections and Healing

Social connectedness is the kingpin to disaster coping and recovery, not to mention critical to good health in general, both physical and mental. Unfortunately, the divisiveness embedded in Trojan Horse messages from the top annihilate social connections, as life-long relationships get slashed to pieces by whatever verbal fencing follows. Thus such Twitter messaging delivers a double whammy: first an assault against human sensitivities and intellect, then robbing us of our greatest resource for coping with its aftermath.

Our Inner Armor

Mercifully, the most valuable coping asset we have is one that nobody can take away from us.

Compassion—compassion for those with opposing positions, for perpetrators of major discord, and especially for ourselves. Hostility and compassion cannot stand together in the same inner space. One or the other must step aside. We get the choice over which to give reign.

I can hear it now. “Yeah right, Doc. Where’s compassion to be found in this mess?”

Engaging Compassion

Compassionate caring is something you turn on, not wait for it to turn up. You find it by tapping into empathy for others’ inner states, instead of defending against their angry opinion sharing. Even if you disagree or are put off by ranting or raging, you can still find compassion for this reality: they experience so much fear, they momentarily see no choice other than to fall back on protective inner mechanisms, knee-jerk reactions that reliably spark defensiveness and pepper an angry thesis.

Consider this: How exactly would you expect current developments to affect your friends’ or family members’ inner workings, given what you know about their individual worldviews or life situations? These days so much is turbulent and uncertain, even downright scary, especially for some.

Always keep in mind that when loved ones, comrades, or even strangers on the Internet double down on defenses, it’s more to do with emotional survival than making personal attacks. It indicates fear is so great as to cause falling back on gut reactions and polar absolutes.

Nurturing Your Supportive Network

When angry encounters occur, engage empathy and compassion by stepping back and non-judgmentally listening; refrain from letting your own defensiveness step in. This path is healing for sharer and listener alike, reviving caring connectedness for both.

Likewise, consider the roots feeding anyone given to habitual angry and insensitive outbursts. What unfortunate life experiences, genetics or developmental challenges fuel this seeming absence of compassion? Why does the afflicted feel safe only by employing extreme outbursts? And, would any of us do better in his or her situation?

Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, we can empathize with the plight of being forced to live with whatever inner demons are prodding a tortured soul’s rant.

Heal Thyself

Don’t forget to spare compassion for your own state. There’s nothing weak or condescending about giving yourself an occasional “there, there, now.” We’ve been through a lot. Only sizable analysis and future history books are likely to get us to anywhere near the bottom of how this current Twilight Zone came to pass. But not knowing the final outcome does not keep us from using our strengths to provide comfort in the present.

Likewise, others’ inner demons need not be given free reign to dismantle our personal strengths. We can’t control what others say or do. But we always have choices of our own, including how we let a dysfunctional socio-political era impact ourselves and those we hold dear.

For more information on coping with disaster stress, see the following resources:

Rio de Janeiro: A Lesson in Wholeness

Why did the competitors who finished last in the summer Olympics so often seem rioexhilarated? They dedicated entire lives to excelling at their sport. Winning was their goal. How can they be so happy in the face of defeat?

This year’s presidential election represents another type of training and competing – but not just among candidates. It also drives the hard work and dedication of those who support them, hoping to promote causes dear to their hearts.

This year toxicity achieved an all-time high, human decency and basics of logic at times tossed to the wind, the two even confused with or dismissed as mere “political correctness.” Abandoning our humanity traumatizes. It robs us of respect for self and others alike. It leaves us suffocating in a toxic waste dump of suspicion, hate, and fear.

This particular political juncture will soon end, at least for the current set of candidates. But what about the rest of us? How do we preserve our humanity and wholeness, after being bombarded with such destructive divisiveness?

Continue reading

Peace Like a River

big benRight now is all we have. That’s it, the sum of our existence.

Yes, we do plan for an expected future–probabilities certainly suggest that time will continue its trek. And we can’t ignore that the past once was. That is where learning occurred, how we each accrued personal encyclopedias of how to be or do in the world. But experiencing peaceful presence in day to day life, and achieving genuine connectedness with fellow human beings–that only happens in the now.

Now is as an ongoing flow, begging us to dip in our feet and appreciate its gentle currents. This is easier said than done in today’s world. Inner peace at times seems so evasive, so often dammed away somewhere upriver, leaving us to stew in our own juices. Judging, blaming, criticizing, uncertainties, fears, self-doubt–all prevent us from achieving the glow and peace of inner presence.

We do not purposely strive to be dysfunctional. If we did, our species would not have saber-toothed tigersurvived. On the contrary, roadblocks to peace are typically protective, standing guard for imminent threat or other forms of crisis. There is value in being constantly on the alert if the hostile tribe next door could attack anytime, or a saber-toothed tiger could be lurking around any corner. But most of us do not live in such a world. The adversities of modern society do not often require constant awareness of them in order to survive. But our neurochemistry does not know that.

Is it a lost cause, then? Are we slaves to the neurochemical dictates of trauma and survival? 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

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

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