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:

San Bernardino: Overcoming the Assault on Resilience

This time, tragedy struck in San Bernardino. Since the alleged shooters came forward without any known hint of a violent streak, implications are especially difficult to absorb.

The media bring up the usual debates that follow these incidents: gun control, access to mental health services, how to protect ourselves if we personally facerigidityd something similar. The arguments of both sides eventually fall to the wayside: The inadvisability of adopting extreme positions eventually takes hold, we sensibly agree, and we move on, letting our individual resilience take form.

But wait–what’s wrong with this picture? Isn’t that exactly what terrorists do? Look at the extreme interpretation of a position, then act accordingly? Is that truly logical, adaptive, or resilient? Does this approach place us at the same level of functioning as the terrorists?

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