Hurricane Sandy caused an electrical outage across many neighborhoods. Here in the Five Towns, many of us dealt with a sustained outage spanning more than 2 weeks. It has been interesting to hear how people express their frustration, using verbalizations such as “I have no power”, or “I miss my power” vs. language specifically referring to electricity, “My home has no electricity”. We often don’t realize how the way we think and talk can affect how we experience our roles in a disaster. Aside from the loss of possessions, cars, homes, and time, many have experienced a loss of control. We have been left believing we are helpless as our lives have been turned upside down by circumstances we seem unable to influence. However, when we learn to recognize the power within ourselves, we may find the external powerlessness easier to tolerate.
Step 1: Understand Your Loss
When people experience a period of stress, this can cause neuropsychological change. Perhaps the most primary change is the release of cortisol- a hormone associated with stress. We are feeling anxious (an emotion designed to motivate action to avoid real threat), and our minds and bodies are affected by thinking and physiological changes that are part of the natural “fight or flight” response. In simple language, this means that while we are experiencing the stressful after effects of the hurricane during which we may need to make decisions about our children, our homes, and our livelihoods our brain function may be compromised. We may find ourselves struggling to remember details such as phone numbers, email addresses or due dates for important bills. We may feel overwhelmed by tasks we could have easily accomplished prior to the hurricane- such as filling out a FEMA application. This may culminate in a very real loss of control: engaging in emotion-driven behavior which usually hampers our problem solving abilities.
Step 2: Honor Your Loss
When talking with people in the community, we often hear a hesitance to express one’s own pain because others are suffering more damage: “I’ve been living out of a suitcase for the past two weeks in my in-laws basement with my three kids, including a newborn. I haven’t showered in days. But I can’t offer complaints because my neighbor’s whole basement was flooded, I feel so bad for them.” While acknowledging other people’s losses may help you maintain a sense of perspective, their pain does not negate the struggles you are facing. It is okay to feel angry, sad, hopeless, scared, and worried. In fact, allowing yourself to feel your own emotions is a healthy part of being a compassionate person. When you allow yourself to feel your own pain, accept your own pain, and honor your own pain, it provides you with the tools for feeling other people’s pain. Further, if we take time to accept our feelings without demanding immediate resolutions to problems, we will allow for the dissipation of their intensity to a more manageable level where we can utilize constructive approaches to solving problems.
Exercise: Make a list of all the things you have lost, tangible and intangible, due to the hurricane. For example: a week of work, sleep, basement, living room furniture, photo albums, car, time with spouse, peace of mind, favorite hair band, hours of exercise. Take a moment and allow yourself to feel whatever emotions surface. Embrace those emotions. It is okay and healthy to have a reaction to your losses, no matter how objectively big or small they seem.
Step 3: Reframe Your Loss
Most stressful events are out of our control. However, if we perceive a sense of control within ourselves, that perception can help us cope with the situation. Let’s call this our “internal sense of control.” An “internal sense of control” involves focusing on one’s reaction to the stress rather than on the stressor itself. It is the knowledge that our reactions (thoughts, feelings, and general behavior) to life events are entirely in our own control and nothing can change that. Current research shows that having a sense of internal control is associated with better adjustment to stress and better judgment during times of stress.
Those of us with an external sense of control perceive ourselves as passive recipients of events. This makes us more likely to both overgeneralize the negative outcomes of stressful events and to minimize our ability to effectively respond to those events. When we exaggerate the negative outcomes of even truly difficult events like losing electric power or losing a home, we often ascribe unreasonably negative meanings to these situations without even realizing. For example, we may tell ourselves that “it will take forever to get my home repaired”, or that “we don’t have enough money to get us through this”. These thoughts paralyze us and cause us to feel depressed, angry and irritable as we drive the message that we are powerless and helpless further into our minds and hearts. Sometimes, we minimize our own resilience. We automatically think that we “can’t handle all of this” or “it’s too much for me to deal with”. We then may avoid helpful courses of action like making a phone call to service providers, calling an organization for help or even making a “to-do” list because we feel anxious and overwhelmed.
Exercise: Remember that list of your losses? Title that list “things that are OUT of my control”. Now begin a new list titled “things that are IN my control”. This list is for the things you ARE in control of, namely your personal reactions to the loss and stress you have experienced. For example: staying calm, calling FEMA, thanking spouse for hard work, making a donation of time, clothes, or money, or assessing the damage to your belongings.
The more we focus on the things that are in our control, the more empowered and in control we will feel. We can take small steps toward recovering from the hurricane. We can recognize and accept our losses. And we can believe that the power to choose how we react to stress lies within our own selves.