Living though a disaster can be as devastating inside of ourselves as it can be to the outside world. Disasters can be very unpredictable. Everything from a car accident to a weather event can be a disaster. This post will focus on recognizing that you have been through a disaster, what to expect from yourself in a disaster and finally how to be of service to others who have experienced a disaster.
First it is critical, before anything else, to understand that safety is not negotiable. If you are in a situation pre or post disaster and you are not safe physically, emotionally, spiritually, or communally, it is imperative this be the primary focus. You cannot help others and cannot be useful in a disaster when you are affected by it. So, the key is once you are out of danger and have “come back to yourself” then you can be helpful to others.
Second, disasters cause the limbic system to activate the “fight or flight” response. This causes the body to be flooded with adrenaline and hormones that prepare us to run or to fight. This will last as long as the disaster does. So, burnout among those first responders whether physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual is common after a time. The key is that no one can stay in this heightened space of awareness for a really long period of time.
Third, disasters are unexpected and not a normal part of life. So, we can feel as though we are “caught off guard” to the point where we no longer remember how to respond to the environment. This “shock” factor is a part of the well documented grief process. The grief process is the way in which the body, the emotional and spiritual self, and the mind realign so that we feel okay and safe again. The main point about grief is that there is no timeframe. You cannot expect others to do at the same pace as you do. We as helpers know that grief is a core issue that causes many of the other “ripple” effects of depression, anxiety, addiction, or self-destructive behaviors.
When faced with the consequences of a disaster there are some key things we can do to make the recovery process easier. Once we are safe again and have the capacity to do the work we must first acknowledge the disaster for what it was – not what we think or wanted it to be. Especially if death or injury occurred many of us want to to channel our feelings toward something to make the disaster make sense to us. For example, if we lose our home we may say that “Flo, that damn storm, stole my house.” This projection is a way of helping us target an outside entity and make it responsible for our grief and loss. This is a smart move initially, and especially with kids, but it cannot last forever.
The key is to accept the disaster as it is. Now what we want it to be. Then we can accept the fact this happened to us and begin the work of grieving the loss. This grief takes the form of a roller coaster of emotion that bounces from shock, to extreme sadness, to rage (not anger but rage), to a bargaining behavior of “I can accept this if…,” until finally acceptance. This process is not linear. It is the worst roller coaster ride in the world.
The closer someone is to a disaster or in the experience of a loss because of disaster then the longer it may take to make sense of it. We should never force someone to be where they are not with something like this. Mental health professionals can help if someone seems to become stuck and cannot get through the grief process. For some people there is a delayed reaction to a disaster. This delay could be short in terms of days or maybe even years. For some there is a “layering” effect where disasters build on each other. Carrying this much around inside can be detrimental to someone’s well-being.
Compassion and gentleness with the self are also great tools in these moments. This is not a normal event to occur in life. So, there is no real way to prepare for it. All any of us can really do is be present to what we really feel and what we need in the next moments to be okay again. Even if for a little while. Many helping professionals specialize in grief and loss/disaster recovery work. If you find yourself stuck reach out. There are many of us who understand and can help you through it.
Final note here, disasters can bring forward feelings of powerlessness. For some people this may lead to feeling hopeless and lost. If someone stays there too long they may begin to have thoughts of suicide. The national suicide hotline is 1-800-273-8255. If you or someone you know is really struggling because of a disaster reach out. Help is there.
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