Coping With Calamity
Maybe panic and prevention aren’t the only options.
Posted Oct 29, 2020
It looks as though 2020, like 9/11, is destined to become a date associated with stress and disaster. We rang in the new year with talk of the roaring '20s but didn’t realize that the roar was really the sound of a freight train bearing down on us. Between the scourge of COVID-19, political polarization, protests over police violence and social inequality, and a seemingly never-ending parade of wildfires, hurricanes, and tornadoes with some murder hornets thrown in, our inboxes have been filled with memes about how to jump to 2021. But unless time travel becomes a reality, we are stuck with wearing our masks, limiting our exposure to negative political ads, and trying to figure out what we will take with us if we have to evacuate.
Of course, life has never been safe. Wars, plagues, and violence were the norm for millennia and people faced those threats without the benefit of electronic communication, effective health care, or even the rule of law. Ironically, from the comfort of the industrialized world in the 21st century our lives tend to be longer, and less physically demanding than those of our ancestors. But we face some novel stressors. Our technology makes it easier to communicate across time and distance, but also more difficult to separate work and home. Our computers allow us to share information quickly, so we expect faster replies. Our home appliances make it easier to clean, so we increase our standards of cleanliness. Gone are the days of a yearly spring cleaning and wearing the same clothes all week. Now that most children survive to adulthood, we focus on enriching, not just protecting their lives.
The primacy of those concerns can be destroyed in the time it takes a wildfire to leapfrog through a community, a tornado to rearrange the landscape, or the winds and floods of a hurricane to wash away life as we knew it. Suddenly, food, water, clothing, and security become paramount, and recovering and rebuilding can take months to years. Psychological responses to disasters vary, based on people’s life experience, resilience, and the extent of their loss. But even people who haven’t been directly affected hear the stories, see the images, and find themselves wondering what they would do if they found themselves in the path of a disaster.
For some of us, trying to anticipate and prepare for future calamities becomes a full-time job. We scan the news, read up on disaster preparedness, and have trouble sleeping as visions of disasters dance in our heads. To some degree, these efforts, referred to as preventive coping are helpful. Keeping food and water on hand and knowing how to move to safety in response to the disasters that are common in your neck of the woods makes sense. But, since most anticipated disasters don’t actually materialize, the energy and effort needed to stay on high alert at all times can be exhausting. Of course, avoiding all thoughts of disaster, or denying risk so you don’t have to worry in the present does little to mitigate the crisis when something does happen.
So, is there a happy medium? Many psychologists argue that the key is to practice proactive coping. This goal-focused strategy acknowledges that there is value in accumulating resources in anticipation of future challenges. Maintaining some savings, packing a go-bag in case you do have to evacuate, making copies of your important documents and keeping them somewhere besides the house where you live, arranging for a contact person who lives outside your geographic area for separated family members to contact in a disaster, and staying informed about imminent dangers all make practical sense. But proactive coping is not a fear-based approach. Once you have made reasonable preparations for adversity, you also need to take a look at your cognitive resources.
Proactive coping rests on the assumption that you will mobilize your personal resources to cope with the unexpected. It relies on your having learned to recognize negative thought traps that perpetuate feelings of helplessness or despair. Proactive copers don’t assume that bad things will never happen, nor do they assume that they will be unable to cope when something does. Instead, they accept the fact that life is not always in our control, but the way we respond is. When their emotions are interfering with their ability to cope, they evaluate the situations, thoughts, and physiological responses that are triggering those feelings and find ways to change their approach. When they realize that they are ignoring their feelings so they can avoid the pain and solve problems, they make time to acknowledge and process their reactions to the things that are happening. When they feel overwhelmed, they admit they are not irreplaceable, and let other people step up to help carry the load. And, when they make mistakes, or miss opportunities to make things better, they learn from it rather than blaming themselves for not being perfect.
Like anything else worth doing, Proactive coping requires practice. It is hard to practice deep breathing in the midst of a crisis, if you haven’t practiced when you are calm. You have to cultivate connections with others in order to create reliable social support and you have to clarify your values, goals and priorities when you are calm, so you can remember them when you are not. Proactive coping isn’t a magic rocket that will launch us out of 2020, but it can help us navigate the turbulence around us.
Straud, C., McNaughton-Cassill, M., & Fuhrman, R. (2015). The role of the Five Factor Model of personality with proactive coping and preventative coping among college students. Personality and Individual Differences, 83, 60–64. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2015.03.055