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:

Advertisements

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

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

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