Whether a hurricane, tornado, or earthquake, the trauma of living through a natural disaster is deep and excruciating. When the waters recede, the winds die down, or the earth stops shaking, we begin the clean up of our homes and neighborhoods. What can we do to put our emotional lives back together too?
The first step to healing is to name what you are feeling. You can’t ignore the fear or anger, anxiety or incredible sadness. Emotions are a vital summary of our bodies’ reactions to life experiences. The alarm in your brain, your amygdala, sends stress signals throughout your body to alert you to potential danger or problems. You can use those messages most effectively if you put them into words and thoughts.
After Hurricane Sandy, we did a brief inquiry on social media. We asked, “What stresses you out most about the storm?” The common responses were about fearing the loss of power, worrying about personal safety and the safety of family and friends, and wondering if things would ever get better.
In each case what caused the stress was deeply personal. A woman saw trees fall in her yard and continued to lose sleep over whether another would fall on her house. A dad worried about his wife and children as he was stuck in another city. A grandmother even got the play-by-play of her daughter and baby granddaughter’s evacuation in New York City via text messages. Even though she was safe in bed, it felt like she was in danger too because her family was at risk.
You can’t ignore alarm signals from your brain by prematurely focusing on relaxing or putting the events behind you. You should be stressed in the immediate experience of a disaster. Once you’re through the imminent danger, it still takes time for our brains to recover from the extreme stress. The first way to deal with these protective stress reactions is to recognize them as helpful signals. They become valuable when we translate the physical and emotional discomfort into a chance to pay attention to what we can control, even in painful, chaotic circumstances.
The second step to recovery, the most important action you can take after a traumatic experience, is to pause and think. People tell us again and again that the key to being able to translate the feelings of a stress reaction is to immediately focus on the one thing that is most important to you in your life right now. Notice that we didn’t suggest you focus on how to solve the most pressing problems facing you. That clearly is important, but there is one thing, which has to come first before any problem can be thoughtfully analyzed and effectively solved.
When you think clearly about what makes your life worthwhile, even for a moment, this clears the mind and signals your alarm that you are in control. When the world around you is falling apart, this is the best way to bring your stress reactions back to a manageable level.
One young man wrote us about how he did this during the storm. “I find it relaxing to bust out the saws and drop trees that will become a potential hazard. I did that throughout the hurricane and moved trees out of the street around town with my truck and a big chain.” The most important thing to him in a perilous situation was to try and help others be safe.
If you’re reading this, you’re most likely out of mortal danger, but you still may be feeling extremely stressed. What can you focus on now that even in just a few seconds can shift your attention from what’s wrong to what’s best and most important to you in your life?
It could be a loved one, a success that you’re looking forward to in the future, or your ability to help others. This may sound crazy. You house may be in ruins and you may have lost someone you love.
To reset your brain’s alarm and regain a sense of being in control, your brain needs you to focus on what you care about. Even as you suffer, the thinking center in your brain wants your life to matter. You can’t skip this step if you want to restore yourself and your life when you’ve been through the extreme stress of a disaster.
The third step is to keep track of your levels of stress reactions over the next days and weeks.
On a scale of one to ten, where is your stress level right now? A ten is what you felt in the middle of the storm as your life or the lives of your loved ones or friends actually were in real danger.
If it is low, somewhere below a five, you’re recovering well and in a healthy place. Most of us, when we are relaxed and safe, can keep our stress levels between a three and five (a one or two is deeply relaxed, and there is no zero because if we had no stress at all we’d be dead).
At these stress levels, you’re probably spontaneously focusing on what’s important to you without having to do this on purpose. That’s fine, but you’re not maximizing your ability to manage stress when you let this happen automatically.
Even when your stress level is low, it’s valuable to pause and think about what you care about most. To think clearly is to focus. It is the power our brain has to help us regain a sense of personal control even when you can't control everything in the worst experiences. When we do focus on what’s most important in low stress times, it shows us that we can use this skill in the most difficult moments.
If your stress level is between a five and eight, that is a definite reminder to focus on what’s most important to you right now, even if only for just a few seconds of clear and concentrated reflection.
It is so easy to get caught in the emotional spin after what you’ve just experienced. You might have distressing memories. You might have bad dreams. You might feel your heart rate rising or start sweating and not know why.
When you feel your stress rise in a moment that you know you are safe, think about what you want to do or feel right now. Your brain’s alarm is that powerful; it will keep making sure you’re safe by sending stress signals even after the disaster is over. If you choose, you can harness the power of that other crucial area in your brain, your thinking center, by focusing on the parts of your life that are precious and enable you to think clearly and feel a sense of personal control even under great stress.
On the other hand, if you find your stress level is consistently at the highest levels, a nine or a ten, it’s probably time to ask for help. Anyone who is deeply traumatized by disaster, no matter how strong and resilient, can benefit from professional guidance. This doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you. It just means that your brain’s alarm is still trying to keep you safe and your thinking center, your conscious mind and memory, is in need of the kind of effective professional help that everyone benefits from at times. Professional support is often essential when recovering from extreme danger as you rebuild a safe and healthy life.
Even after trauma, we have to power to recover. We can rebuild. We can start over. And we can begin that process by noticing what we feel, pausing and thinking about what’s most important, and measuring our stress so that we’re in control rather than letting the disaster continue to control us.
What is most important to you right now?