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 stress 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.
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 on 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.
“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?
- 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?
Disaster is like that. Trauma often is, as well. It’s like the rug being pulled out from under. All that seems 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
“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 permanent.
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
“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
“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