Stress typically is described as our pattern of responses following any event that taxes our ability to cope. For most of us, these events are simply the background noise for daily experiences in the form of time demands, interpersonal conflicts or minor hassles at work, school and home. Following a more serious crisis, however, these coping mechanisms can become overwhelmed. This is particularly true when the event is unpredictable and out of our control, as in the recent hurricanes that affected our community.
One of the psychological challenges facing Katrina survivors is dealing not only with individual losses, but also the wide range of reactions among those around us. In times of stress, people usually rely on their support system, yet that weakens significantly when everyone experiences the same crisis. Even those who suffer minimal damage might feel a sense of vulnerability and anxiety about what changes lie ahead.
Most people in our area are facing some type of loss and can expect to go through stages similar to those experienced in grief. Individuals progress through the stages at different rates and in different orders, even when they're all dealing with the same situation. Psychological makeup plays a role in how emotions are expressed. Some people have immediate and intense outbursts, while others have more delayed responses. There may even be a gender difference. Men are more likely to experience "fight or flight," where increased levels of adrenaline energize them enough to deal with the aftermath of a disaster. Health psychologist Shelley Taylor says some females may instead develop a "tend and befriend" response, nurturing their children and relying on social networks to reduce their vulnerability. While our reactions may be as unique as we are, the important thing to remember is that each one is valid, and acceptance of ourselves and others is the first step toward successful coping.
Stress affects the mind as well as the body. Some or all of these feelings and behaviors are to be expected following a catastrophic event. Your level of pre-hurricane stress and past experience in dealing with a crisis can influence your responses.
Emotional states could swing from profound sadness and discouragement to a feeling of disconnected numbness or irritability. As with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), flashbacks or frequent replay of disaster images may occur, along with accompanying anxiety as the mind attempts to desensitize itself to the trauma. Other cognitive symptoms include confusion, forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating, particularly when familiar work and home environments change.
Many people change their patterns of eating and sleeping out of necessity, but stress also wears down the body and depletes its immunity and natural energy stores. The result is fatigue, changes in weight and an increase in minor physical ailments such as colds and allergies. Pre-existing medical conditions such as hypertension, diabetes and asthma may also worsen and should be monitored closely.
Getting back on schedule will help you to cope. Basic routines like regular mealtimes and consistent patterns of sleeping and waking tend to restore a sense of comfort and security. Allow time for hobbies and other enjoyable activities. If you are sharing a home with displaced relatives, divide up household responsibilities and respect everyone's need for privacy.
Being active, even if you can only find time for a brisk 10-minute walk, can boost mood-enhancing endorphins and make you feel like doing more. You also need to rest and relax; sleep deprivation magnifies stressors and makes it difficult to solve problems. Meditation and progressive muscle relaxation techniques are easy to learn and a great way to reduce anxiety.
Chances are, medical appointments were missed or pushed to the bottom of the to-do list recently. More than ever, it's important to see your doctor and address medical concerns as well as focus on preventative care. While adapting to major stresses takes time, seek professional help if you suffer severe and prolonged symptoms of stress. Far from being a sign of weakness, knowing when to ask for help contributes to active and healthy coping skills.
Spend time with others. Sharing the burden with other people is one of the most effective ways to reduce stress. How often you interact with others is not nearly as important as the perception that you have at least one friend or family member you can call on if needed. The flip side of social support is being a good listener. Resist the urge to tell someone how they should or shouldn't feel -- advice or judgment of someone else's reaction is far less helpful than simply offering acceptance and a receptive ear.
Channel energy into action. In the face of overwhelming demands, it helps to break a large job into smaller, more manageable tasks. The sense of satisfaction from completing one task will boost your confidence to solve the really tough issues. For big decisions, determine your options, list pros and cons, and visualize the consequences of each alternative. Not all stressors come in the form of problems that can be solved. When things are out of your control, coping should focus instead on your outlook and emotions. It may be difficult to see beyond broken homes and disrupted lives, but even when painful, crises can serve as opportunities for personal growth. Focus on what's good and right in your life. Forgive your mistakes and move on. In the words of Hans Selye, the father of stress research, "It's not stress that kills us, it's our reaction to it."