Managing Stress and Rebuilding Your Life After Natural Disaster

By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.

For several years, my wife Jan and I have been splitting time between Connecticut and Florida. We love the sun and warmth of our southern home, and it’s quickly become a place where we both feel we belong.

I’m happy to report that we survived Hurricane Irma just fine—though like millions of our fellow Floridians, we did sustain damage to our property. Still, we are thankful because it could have been much, much worse. A friend of ours in Houston wasn’t so fortunate and lost everything to Hurricane Harvey.

These are hard and heartbreaking times for a lot of people, and my heart goes out to all affected. Honestly, it’s difficult to imagine what coping with such catastrophic devastation must be like.

If you’re wondering right now how you’re going to manage it all—and you’re fortunate enough to have an internet connection that allows you to read this—I want to offer a few words of support and encouragement that may help you. They won’t bring back your home or belongings, I know. But I hope they will have value to you as you go through the recovery process, and perhaps provide some insight that will make coping with all the stress a little easier.

1. Above All, Honor Your Feelings

Living through any sort of natural disaster is a big deal, and it’s sure to raise some big emotions—

  • Grief over lost property, pets, or (Heaven forbid) friends or family members
  • Fear and hopelessness over how you’re ever going to find the resources, both material and emotional, to recover
  • Overwhelm at the sheer number of things that need to happen before life can get back to normal
  • Anger at the question, “Why me?”
  • Regret that perhaps you didn’t prepare differently

There’s a natural temptation at these times to put on a strong front, vow to rebuild, and power through. But your losses and feelings are real, and they need to be honored.

Find a time and place to feel them and let them be whatever they are. Remember, negative feelings are not inherently unhealthy—but they become unhealthy when they’re bottled up and ignored. So cry. Yell. Let it out. Then let the moment pass, and you’ll find you can gradually refocus on the practical details of moving forward.

2. Focus on One Thing at a Time

When much of your life is destroyed or disrupted in one fell swoop, it’s hard to know where to start putting things back together again—and so, so easy to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of it all. Just thinking about everything that needs to be done can be paralyzing.

Here, my best advice is to follow the wisdom of the old saying about eating an elephant one bite at a time.

Ask yourself, “What’s the most important thing I need to do next?” Then focus on doing only that one thing. When you’re finished, ask yourself the question again—and keep going like that until you start to feel like you have some semblance of control over your immediate situation.

When you can try to contain your worry to one or two things—instead of 100 things—you’ll be more effective at dealing with your problems, and less anxious overall.

3. Make Taking Care of Yourself a Priority

It will feel selfish, and it may seem impossible, but your Number One priority each day needs to be taking care of yourself. If you’re not at your best, it will be that much harder to take care of your family and navigate the recovery process.

First and foremost, try to eat as healthy as possible. I know this can be difficult if resources are limited, but do your best to stick with healthy, anti-inflammatory foods like those in the PAMM diet. Fresh, whole foods that are full of good energy will keep your body more balanced than meals full of sugar, caffeine, and fast food—and that means you’ll be more resilient to stress and less susceptible to sickness. Try to focus on foods that are actually known to help limit anxiety, like eggs, citrus fruits and omega-3-rich fish.

Is Your Food Alive with Energy?

Second, take 10 minutes every day for meditation or alternate nostril breathing. Both have been shown to help reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The less cortisol you have in your system, the better you’ll be able to weather long-term stress, which disaster recovery can be.

4. Don’t Try to Go It Alone

In crisis, we need each other more than ever. If you need help, ask—whether it’s with removing debris, cleaning up a waterlogged home, understanding government assistance programs, or just coping with the emotional roller coaster of it all.

Generally, the less alone you feel in a situation, the less stressful it is to get through. Lean on family, friends, and other vital connections in your life. Also, don’t overlook connecting with your neighbors—after all, they understand what you’re up against perhaps better than anyone.

One more thing.

One of the most beautiful things we often see in the aftermath of disaster are strangers who volunteer to help, simply for the sake of assisting people who need it. These people are nothing short of angels in my book, and it shows me that there is still far more good in the world than bad. Be smart, of course, but let them help you. Then pay back the effort by helping someone else a little further down the road, when you’re in a better place again.

5. Be Patient and Try to Stay Positive

This may be the hardest piece of advice of all to live by when everything feels up in the air and things are moving slowly or taking unexpected turns.

Just do your best. Understand that some days will be better than others and remember that there’s little to be gained in worrying about something you can’t control. Focus on what’s right in front of you and what you have to be grateful for. Each day, think through the things that went your way, and believe that life will be better tomorrow.

Finally, remember this: No matter what you’re facing, you can do it. The human spirit—like the human body—is incredibly resilient and has a natural drive to restore itself and go on. You will, too.

God bless.

© 2017 HeartMD Institute. All rights reserved.

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