Coping and Disaster Recovery for Mental Health Professionals
During the recovery phase following the disaster, both you and your consumers or clients will continue to experience stress, grief, and perhaps even some symptoms of depression and anxiety. During this recovery phase physical problems, such as changes in sleep and appetite, digestive problems, more susceptibility to colds or other illnesses, and increased use of alcohol and other drugs, are also common. We as well as those we accompany clinically may also have emotional responses, such as fear, irritability, nightmares, difficulty concentrating, feelings of betrayal, and loss of interest in everyday activities.
What can you do to cope, and to facilitate in your clients or consumers coping, in your journey toward recovery from disaster? Here are some helpful suggestions:
- Use grounding, a technique designed to keep your experience in the “here and now” and remind you that you are alive and present to life. Teach consumers or clients this technique as well.
- Take time every day to focus on your breathing as a calming and centering strategy. You can educate consumers or clients about the contribution of conscious breathing to wellness, and demonstrate this in your work as well.
- Experiment with watching your thoughts to identify those that may be catastrophic or lead to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. A healthy outlook on life, for both you and your consumers or clients, makes resiliency and recovery more achievable.
- Challenge negative beliefs. Replace such thoughts as, "I always have bad luck...nothing will get better from now on...everything is going wrong," with, "Is there any real reason to think that...maybe things will change for the better."
- Adjust self-talk. Convert negative messages into positive ones. For example, replace "I’ll never get through this," with "I can do this, but it’s normal and okay to feel scared and overwhelmed."
- Use previous ordeals that have been successfully overcome as a "power base."
- Consider alternative outcomes for worst-case scenarios. For example, "I can still see my friends, I can enjoy the little things in life."
- Imagine how this event will be viewed in the future, remembering how things do change over time.
Some consumers or clients will be resistant to these strategies and perceive you as suggesting that their struggles are “all in their heads.” Educating them with some easily understood techniques and exampleswill tend to diminish this perception.
- Learn to manage anxiety through such strategies as guided imagery and relaxation. Include information about anxiety and its management in your office literature and handouts.
- Teach your consumers or clients about the need for support systems or groups to reach out and connect with others, especially those who may have shared the stressful event. Consider forming such groups for your clients or consumers and consider affiliating with a disaster-specific subgroup of your professional association such as these for psychologists, licensed professional counselors, psychiatrists and licensed social workers.
- Use empathic listening in your interactions with consumers or clients around disaster, and seek out in your circle of friends, family, and spiritual community those who will listen in this way to you.
- Teach consumers or clients the need for emotional expression and practice this yourself. “Getting things out” helps.
- Physical exercise can contribute to greater well-being following disaster. Teach consumers or clients this principle and help them to develop an appropriate exercise plan. Practice it yourself.
- Use prayer, meditation, or other spiritual practices as helpful coping strategies.
- Understand that your service to others, even in the midst of your own response to the disaster, can help you cope with your struggles in a kinder and clearer way.
- Use creativity to fill your life with “food for your soul.”
- Take planned breaks, such as going to the movies or doing some light reading, to remind yourself that you are recovering, that you are well.
- Maintain relationships with your pets in order to give and be given coping gifts.
- Nourish yourself through healthy eating and drinking, and avoid self-medication, alcohol, or other drugs.
- Write about your experience in detail, just for yourself or to share with others.
Remember that people who engage fully in recovery from disaster discover unexpected benefits. As they gradually heal their wounds, survivors and mental health providers alike find that they are also developing inner strength, compassion for others, increasing self-awareness, and often the most surprising -- a greater ability to experience joy and serenity than ever before.
This page, entitled “Coping With Disasters,” is a complete guide to understanding and managing post-disaster stress. It links to helpful fact sheets from organizations such as the National Center for PTSD, the Center for Mental Health Services, and FEMA.
This article, entitled “Become a Survivor: How to Find Peace of Mind Following Life’s Traumas,” provides strategies for healing, relieving stress, and obtaining a healthy outlook after traumatic events.