Earthquake in Mexico, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, Jose, shootings, and violent protests: Some disasters are predictable and some are not. Either way, the results can be potentially devastating in many ways. Some disasters are public and some are very personal such as the death of a loved one, a terminal diagnosis, a personal betrayal, a robbery, or rape. Disasters come in all shapes and sizes. How is one expected to cope?
There are no easy or pat answers that make it less painful or the loss less significant. However, there are a few ways to help you come out of the trauma stronger, more focused, and with better clarity about priorities.
None of these suggestions are intended to minimize the intensity of the fear or loss, but rather some things one can think about and put into practice that will quicken emotional recovery and help you move on.
1. Of course, if there is any way to prepare before hand, do that. I know of many cases of people who heard that the hurricanes were coming and they heeded law enforcement advice, boarded up windows and evacuated. That’s one form of preparation. This kind of preparation minimized damage to their houses, which in turn provided some sense of relief when they returned home.
In the case of an impending death, or terminal illness, there are also things you can do to prepare such as make amends in your relationships, anticipate medical care needs and create a plan, and getting legal affairs in order.
2. There are other types of preparation that you can do for your emotional wellbeing, even if you have no warning of illness, earthquake or a car wreck.
That preparation comes by establishing practices that strengthen your brain, you spirit and your body, such as meditation and gratitude. Studies have shown how both of these regular practices help relax and decrease the stress on the parts of your brain that are responsible for stress and anxiety, namely the amygdala. They also strengthen the parts of your brain that are responsible for decision-making, establishing trust and connection, as well as executive functioning.
Physically, these practices can begin to strengthen your immune system, because being in a constant state of stress or anxiety leaves you with stress hormones coursing through your body, weakening your resistance to physical and mental illness.
You may be tempted to say, “I’ve already been through the disaster, how will meditation help me now?” Of course it can’t un-do what has happened, but it can help you be more focused on rebuilding and recovery, making that journey less arduous.
Even if you think you don’t have time or you can’t calm yourself down enough to meditate, chances are that you will have time at some point to take a shower. I read an article just today by Paul McKenna, PhD, an international best- selling self-help author whose books have sold more than 7 million copies and have been translated into 32 languages, reminding us to use our shower time as a meditation, washing away anxiety, fear and worry. The article suggested focusing on the water on your skin and envisioning the soap washing your fear and regret down the drain. There are some powerful visualization possibilities here, even when you don’t have time to add another thing to your to-do list.
3. In addition to these grounding practices, it’s important to learn coping mechanisms that work for you such as deep breathing. Again, while taking a deep breath doesn’t erase the tragic event, it can help you to pause for a moment and allow oxygen to flow through your body, helping your brain function better, so that you can respond to what’s happening, or what has happened in a thoughtful, wise, efficient way. Another great coping skill is to ask productive questions. Instead of asking, “Why me?” “How could this have happened?” “How could God allow this?,” learn to ask questions that will lead to a solution, such as, “What can I do now?” “What’s the first thing I need to do?” “Where can I get help?” Then follow the answers up with action. Dwelling on things that have no answer will cause you more grief and frustration and make you less productive, prolonging a stressed emotional state.
4. Practicing self-care is important, especially if you are a caretaker for others as well. It keeps you from getting burned out. Just as the flight attendants on any plane will tell you, put your own oxygen mask on first, so that you can better help others. Self-care also doesn’t have to be time consuming or expensive. Taking little breaks throughout the day to take a quick walk, or just get outside and let the sun and fresh air wash over you. Take a few minutes to close the door to your office, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Learn to say no, delegate tasks, and ask for help when you need it. Being a martyr doesn’t get things done efficiently, it just makes you resentful, which ends up making you less productive and efficient in the long run. Of course, when circumstances become apparent that you would benefit from professional counseling, find a therapist that you feel comfortable with.
5. Let resentments go. Not only do resentments steal your joy, the stress of that kind of thinking continues to release cortisol, which is great in an emergency, but can actually cause harm to the body and the brain on a long term basis, according to Dr. Lantie Jorandby, Board Certified Psychiatrist and Addiction Specialist, Amen Clinics, D.C., and can contribute to moodiness, irritability and even impulsive actions or reactions. This doesn’t mean that you might not have to file a lawsuit, sever a relationship, or take some other remedial action, but it does release you from stress and the need for revenge.
“Recovering from a trauma requires resilience, which is emotional strength to heal. Our emotional strength depends on a number of factors, one being our outlook or attitude about the future. A number of research studies show positive outlooks in the face of difficult circumstances predict better outcomes,” says Dr. Jorandby.
Being purposefully conscious about how you respond in a crisis, can help you get through it better, even causing you to be a help and inspiration to others.