“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?
“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