When major disasters like Hurricanes Harvey and Irma strike, the first priority is to keep people safe. This process involves dramatic evacuations, searches, and rescues, with millions witnessing heart-breaking images on live and social media.
All of these stressors become imprinted in our hearts and brain and can last for days, weeks, months, or longer, mental health experts say. In addition, they note that after the initial emergency passes, the long process of rebuilding and healing begins.
And for many people, the post traumatic stress following a natural disaster can be deadly.
“When our brains perceive that we don’t have enough resources to cope with our current demands, it triggers a cascade of reactions and rampant hormones in the body designed to help us short term to run away or fight off danger. However, if we don’t mobilize these reactions in some way to turn into a positive direction, they land up flooding our system for too long and become toxic,” says Dr. Heidi Hanna, Ph.D., executive director of the American Institute of Stress and author of a new book, “The 7 Habits of Stress Mastery.”
She tells Newsmax Health the impacts of post-traumatic stress go well beyond psychological issues.
“If our system is already compromised from being too stressed out, the excess of negative stress hormones may trigger cardiovascular events,” she explains. “So it is crucial to deal with the symptoms of stress by turning negative emotions into positive action.”
Noted cardiologist Dr. Stephen Sinatra calls stress “the grim reaper that abruptly ends life by rupturing unstable plaque in a vital vessel or by triggering its lethal disturbance in heat rhythm.”
Dr. Terry Lyles, Ph.D., is an internationally recognized expert on dealing with stress and trauma. He has trained hundreds of individuals, including the Fire Rescue workers at ground Zero and International Medical Teams in the Asian torn Tsunami area, sharing his time tested, scientifically measure formula for disaster recovery.
“The first step in recovering from any of life’s storms is to make sure that you provide for your own basic needs such as water, shelter, clothing and rest,” he tells Newsmax Health. “You must help yourself before you help others. So instead of letting your body go during a storm, be committed to staying well hydrated, eating properly, moving, exercising regularly, and getting sufficient rest and sleep.
Lyles and other health experts have identified several key ways to recover after a storm:
- Focus on what is in your control.
- Look for the positive in every situation.
- See how you are helping and believe that you and your colleagues are doing the absolute best that they can at this time.
- Before going to sleep, think about or write down all of the victories you witnessed or were part of that day.
- Talk to someone about how you are feeling. “One of the biggest mistakes we make when dealing with difficult emotions is to minimize them or push them down,” says Hanna.
- Write letters or keep a journal to help process the trauma of your experience.
- Make a list of what you are grateful for and add to it every day. When you are feeling low, refer to the list.
- Focus on your purpose for the relief efforts, and on your overall purpose in life. This will give you inspiration to continue.
- Remember the “big picture” while handling the little details of the day.
- Ask yourself why you are alive and then discover how to help someone in need.
- Have faith and trust that many good things will come out of this disaster. If you are so inclined, pray, or engage in other practices that calm the mind, such as meditation, deep breathing, or yoga.
- Take regular breaks from work, storm cleanup, or other stressful activities —every 90 minutes or so — even if it’s just for a few minutes of rest and recovery. Our bodies are designed to handle 90 minute cycles of stress, particularly during a time of crisis. When you take a break, sit or lie quietly or talk to family and friends.
- Drink water regularly. It’s critical to stay hydrated.
- Eat small but frequent meals or snacks of healthy low-fat, low-sugar foods with little food prior to bedtime. Food has a direct impact on our mood. Healthy foods calm nerves and tension while junk foods agitate and create negative moods such as anxiety and depression.
- Do some stretching or basic exercises.
- Do your best to go to bed at the same time every night. Prior to falling asleep focus on positive thoughts and expect a restful, restorative sleep.
“Stress if good for us,” says Lyles. “Our bodies are hard wired to handle stress and our physiology is designed to process and convert stress into energy that can enable us to perform at peak efficiency.
“Properly utilized, stress can propel us to success in every area of life. Stress is meant to define us, not defeat us; to illu8muinate us, not eliminate us and to compliment our lives, not to complicate them.”
Public Health Risks
Lyle notes that another important factor affecting recovery after a tragedy is the threat of diseases that stem from unhealthy water, overcrowded shelters, and mosquito infestations. To stay safe, Lyle recommends:
- Wash your hands and face with soap and water regularly and make sure your children do the same.
- Drink only water that is bottled or from a reliable source.
- Utilize Red Cross supplies including cleaning wipes, bug repellent and antiseptic solutions.
- Avoid pools of standing water whenever possible.
- Keep your body covered with clothing to prevent cuts, scrapes, and bug bites.