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Dealing with the Emotional Aftermath of Harvey

Harvey came, went and left Houston devastated. After the first shock and disbelief passed and the flurry of rescue activities slowed down, many of us began to feel the emotional effects of the destruction.  It’s understandable that people who were directly affected are still in emotional turmoil while dealing with all their most immediate needs – assessing the damage, finding alternative housing, dealing with loss and devastation, the demolition of damaged structures, clean-up projects and rebuilding. And of course, this comes with a lot of fear, suffering, loss, pain and anguish.

What is less obvious is that practically everybody else also felt a surprising flood of emotions. You would think that people who escaped flooding “should” have experienced relief, they “should” have felt blessed and thankful. And yet all around me people were complaining of being physically exhausted and emotionally drained. This catastrophic event took its toll on everyone. I definitely felt it too. And emotional recovery seems to be a slow process.

So, what can we do to help ourselves get through these trying times? It’s very important to take care of three different domains of our lives: the physical (our bodies) mental (our thoughts and emotions) and the spiritual (meaning of all of this).  These domains are interconnected, so taking care of one domain helps the other ones too.

Here’s some ideas that you can try and experiment with.

Your physical body:

  1. I will state the obvious, but it’s surprising how many people forget to eat normally and give their body plenty of rest and sleep. If you feel like you need extra rest and sleep, by all means do so! Our bodies have built-in wisdom, so listen to it. Eat, rest and stay hydrated!
  2. Slow, conscious breathing calms the nervous system and helps to relieve stress. Take short breaks occasionally and just concentrate on your breathing – 5 to 10 conscious and slow inhales and exhales is all it takes to center yourself and relax your nervous system.
  3. Stay grounded. By that I mean don’t forget to pay attention to your surroundings and your body. Is there any tension in your body, are you anxious, too agitated? Slow down, stop, look around and run a quick mental check: what are you thinking, feeling or doing? Where are you? What’s going on around you? Pay attention to the sounds, sights, smells and general sensations. Can you relax your tensed muscles? Help your body deal with stress by “staying present,” and in the moment.
  4. Take walks in nature, “smell the roses,” listen to relaxing (or whatever you like) music and enjoy the little moments of peace.

Your mental and emotional states:

  1. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with so much destruction and so much to do. Fact is, we can only deal with one thing at a time. Try to keep focus on solutions to problems and the tasks at hand – this helps manage overwhelming feelings and keeps you grounded. We all feel better when we concentrate our attention on solving problems instead of dwelling on them and worrying about all that might go wrong. Always look for helpful resources and elicit (and accept) help.
  2. With tense, painful feelings and emotions everywhere you turn (loss, insecurity, fear of the unknown, general uncertainty, survivors guilt, compassion fatigue and depression) everyone, especially sensitive people, get affected. I hear people all the time telling me how bad they feel and how difficult it was for everyone. This is a time when we need to be the most compassionate to ourselves. It’s easier for many people to focus attention on helping others and forgetting about themselves. Be gentle and kind to yourself!
  3. Don’t resist any emotions or feelings, just let them wash over you and give them space and room. When we don’t resist emotions, they come and go. It’s also helpful to name the feeling or emotion you’re experiencing. This simple act engages the rational, thinking part of your brain and helps to reduce the intensity of emotion or feeling. Steady and slow breathing helps with emotions too!
  4. Connect to others, reach out to people, don’t isolate and withdraw from others. Stay in touch with friends and family, even if it’s just through social media. Get involved in joint projects, volunteering, get together with loved ones, join a church or meditation group. Whatever it is, just find something that makes you feel better and more connected.

Your spiritual domain:

  1. Try to make sense of what happened and contemplate “the big picture.” Notice how people got together to help each another, all the outpouring of love and care that was demonstrated during the worst of times. Think about all the “heroes” that selflessly served the community and saved so many people.
  2. Try to feel the connection “to the greater whole.” After all, we are all in it together and it makes us all stronger. As the famous saying goes: “United we stand, divided we fall.” This is especially true during times of disasters and other catastrophic events.
  3. Keep focusing on all the positive events that came out of this: the generosity and kindness of people, the sense of community and unity, the strength, courage and resilience that so many people displayed.
  4. Find your own place and role in all of this. What can you learn from this unusual situation? How can it help you to become a stronger and better person?

These are just a few suggestions. Open your mind and experiment with different ways to cope. Never forget that, “This too shall pass.”

And if you feel that you have a very hard time recovering, consider seeing a mental health specialist.

I wish you a speedy and full recovery.

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