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Prepare for a Behavioral Disaster Wave: Resilience If and When COVID-19 Returns

Psychological distress caused by disaster produces cycles lasting up to a year.

If COVID-19 is like any other disaster, it will follow a predictable course that includes a devastating wave of behavioral issues. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has identified six phases of disaster that communities experience after a disaster hits, and these can last over a period of a year.

Free Digital Photos
Be prepared for what comes after the honeymoon period!
Source: Free Digital Photos

This wave can result in a spike in substance abuse, anxiety symptoms, suicidality, depressive symptoms, domestic violence, and severe levels of stress. With the coming holidays and a resurgence of COVID-19 possible during the fall season, the results could be devastating.

To better understand how to be prepared for a COVID-19 spike and the behavioral effects it can produce, let's look at these six phases. Then, we'll investigate the proven psychological and mindfulness tool you can use to manage all those unforeseen challenges and obstacles, which is, in a word, resilience.

Phases of a Disaster

Phase 1: Fear and Uncertainty

This is the normal initial reaction to any sudden threat. As more is learned, these emotions can either decrease or increase.

Phase 2: Impact

This is the deeper realization of what has occurred, and a whole host of feelings arise, including shock, panic, confusion, and disbelief. Typically, this period is when survival instincts kick in, as individuals seek to protect family and loved ones. This is typically one of the shorter phases.

Phase 3: Hero

Everybody pulls together in this phase and there's a lot of energy as plans are put into place to help others, such as when undergoing a rescue operation.

Phase 4: Honeymoon

In this phase, there's a belief that things will get back to normal, and there's a sense of optimism and looking to the future. This is a time of making connections and reaching out, and when disaster relief is put in place and people bond through their altruism, generosity, and helping.

Phase 5: Disillusionment

Disillusionment occurs when expectations aren't met. Maybe the disaster lasts longer than expected, or the exhaustion and struggle bubble up as anger, exasperation and frustration. This can be one of the longer-lasting phases. Its duration can be lengthened by triggering events–such as another spike in COVID-19 cases. Holidays and disaster anniversary dates are particularly dangerous. A demand for services may not be available, and the inability to cope, along with feelings of hopelessness, usually produce a spike in behavioral issues–which can overwhelm the healthcare system, which may already be fatigued and burned out.

Phase 6: Reconstruction

After reaching a low point, Reconstruction is a period where recovery occurs. It is also a period of working through the grief that has occurred from the disaster experience–all the while getting acclimated to the new version of normal pervading their lives. While the anniversary of a disaster often marks the transition into this phase, it can continue for years, such as the recovery from Great Depression and other key historical shock wave events.

Preparing for Disillusionment and Beyond

There is still a high level of uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, and many worries and concerns could persist even after a vaccine is produced. But in the near future, we need to prepare for the coming disaster wave of disillusionment and loss of hope. This wave could overwhelm social services if there is another spike in the pandemic that could cause new shelter-in-place and other restrictive regulations to be put in place.

If this happens, there could be a behavioral meltdown resulting in an increase in psychological issues mentioned earlier: substance abuse, anxiety symptoms, suicidality, depressive symptoms, domestic violence, and high levels of stress. This is going to spread across the country, impacting communities and treatment centers with a volume of cases that are hard to imagine, let alone treat.

That's why we need to have resilience tools in place and ready to use.

Resilience: Psychological and Mindful Protection Against Obstacles

I like to think of resilience as a powerful vaccination, or booster shot, that protects you against obstacles of all kinds. Resilience can also be thought of as a state of equilibrium, where you can maintain a sense of balance even when the conditions around you are difficult or extreme. It is how we are able to bounce back from life challenges and obstacles.

Researchers who conducted a study on the mediating role of resilience found that individuals who were mindful were less likely to focus on negativity and failure. Because they weren't stuck on the past, they were more likely to move forward, as well as have greater life satisfaction. In addition, mindfulness helps quiet emotions, which is critical for anyone to think more clearly and access the executive and decision-making part of the brain.

I have found that there are four key factors of resilience, and the book 101 Mindful Ways to Build Resilience is structured to take advantage of the four factors. Let's take a closer look at how these factors–calm, mental clarity, optimism and happiness–work to buffer you from failure:

Resilience Factor 1: Calm for Emotional Regulation

If you're steeped in negativity, your emotional system gets aroused, and you are triggered by stress hormones into a state of hyper alertness and reactivity. This is not a state from which to think clearly about all your options. In fact, you need to tame the amygdala, the ancient stress alarm system in order to bring the thinking, executive brain online. Some of the quick resilience tools in 101 Mindful Ways to Build Resilience include physical grounding practices, breathing practices, and tools for taming and calibrating your emotions.

Resilience Factor 2: Mental Clarity for Problem Solving

The area behind your forehead is the frontal cortex, which is the analyzing and decision-making executive part of the brain. To get this working properly requires the right foods–think proteins every 2-3 hours, as well as at least 6 hours of sleep, and a more relaxed nervous system. Resilience requires flexibility in thought. But if you're stuck in old patterns and mindsets, it's hard to get creative. That's why the "Clarity" section of the book includes resilience boosters such as the right foods for mental flexibility, a pause practice for connecting with purpose, and other ways of optimally tuning up the brain for clear thinking and problem solving.

Resilience Factor 3: Optimism for Energy, Motivation and Hope

Even if you had the greatest problem solving skills on the planet, what good would they be if you couldn't get off the couch to put them into action? That's why this resilience factor is so critical to success. Optimism is designed to give you the energy, enthusiasm, determination and positive attitude to move forward. Skills in this category include such things as identifying your own innate strengths, clearing away emotional clutter, and appreciating the glass as half-full,

Resilience Factor 4: Happiness in Finding Joy and Building Connections

While disaster might temporarily keep us from our goals, we need to find happiness as a lifejacket that raises us up and keeps us engaged and hopeful. Joy is that feeling of being alive which you can find in the moment, even in the midst of challenging conditions. By connecting with others, we can share stories and find mutual hope. That's why, when you consider happiness skills, it helps to use practices like gratitude, savoring the good times in your life, and spreading seeds of love and kindness to others. In this way, you feel nurtured and sustained in ways that increase your resilience and vaccinate you against loss of hope.

Two-Minute Resilience Boosting Practice

Part 1: Take a nice, long breath and exhale slowly. Feel all your tension, or even one worry, leaving the body as you let go. This will both bring a sense of calm and clarity. If you want to really luxuriate, take a second breath!

Part 2: Think of one thing you did that helped another, of an accomplishment that made you feel proud, of a time you made someone smile or felt connected you to another. This will enhance a feeling of optimism.

Part 3: Look outside at nature or find one thing of beauty in your environment (a color, object, sound, etc.). Let yourself get absorbed in the sublime beauty before you. Or, reflect on a helpful resource or meaningful connection in your life–even planning to contact that person today. This will bring happiness and hope.