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

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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

Once Again . . . The Charleston Shooting

It happened. Too many times, as President Obama and others point out. The weariness of it, perhaps even complacency forming over it, can lead to tuning out tragedies like the Charleston church shooting as redundant, something expectable of American society. Besides, there’s nothing to be gained by forcing ourselves to watch.

The impact on those affected will be there all the same, beyond the tragic deaths: trauma for the injured, for those who observed it or whose loved ones were killed or injured, and sometimes even for those who watch or hear about it from afar.

terror lurkingWe’ve heard it all before, the potential mental health effects of these experiences. Post-traumatic stress disorder gets the most press. But there are as many different potential reactions to trauma as there are people who experience it.

So what do we do about it? The authorities are always telling us to be prepared for disaster. How do you prepare for a mass casualty disaster? What do you do about this type of absurdity, the horrendous and unpredictable? Are we left only with looking for better ways to clean up whatever mess litters our psyches after the crisis passes? What can any one individual do in advance to fight the war on terrorism?

The answer: take back our vulnerability to terror. One person at a time.

Yes, tall words. Even taller-sounding expectations. Is it realistic to expect people to make themselves invulnerable to unpleasant emotions? 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