October 1, 2022

Psychological First Aid: Returning to Balance after a Disaster

images[1]Disastrous events of any kind will affect each of us in different ways. The most common affects involve a sense of insecurity brought on by heightened vulnerability and feelings of helplessness that upset our balance. Returning to balance after a disaster is a primary need for reestablishing well-being and it will, likely, require some “psychological first aid.”

Our reactions can be both emotional and physical. It’s normal to feel anxious, scared and uncertain about the future. Our thoughts and feelings are not good or bad…right or wrong. The good news is that for most of us these affects will fade away as our lives return to normal. The most at-risk population for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are people who have experienced previous traumatic events; children; those with poor social and familial supports; rescue workers; individuals with physical injuries and those with family or individual histories of anxiety, depression, or a personality disorder. It is also noteworthy that disastrous events resulting from intentional actions produce a greater risk than do impersonal traumatic events.

Returning to our normal routines and spending time with those that offer us comfort and support are necessary steps to returning to normal. So, reestablish a healthy routine in your daily schedule and either stay engaged or re-engage with your strongest social supports. Within your trusted connections, talk about your feelings and struggles. Also, reach out with your support by helping others.

With your children…do all of the above while encouraging them to share their feelings and concerns…but don’t force it. Listen to them attentively and reassure them. Avoid lying to them and making promises to them you can’t keep. If you’ve established wonderful routines of comfort at mealtime and bedtime these are the routines that will bring balance back into your lives. If you haven’t established these routines―now is a great time to do so.

Children need safe outlets such as drawing, journaling, talking and playing after any traumatic event. Encourage them to express themselves and refrain from judging their feelings and reactions.

I remember January 28, 1986 when the “Challenger Shuttle disaster” occurred. My son was in the second grade and I received a call from his teacher that I needed to come to the school immediately to speak to her. I, of course, canceled my appointments for the rest of the day and drove to the school to meet with his teacher. On the way to his classroom I saw Josh playing on the playground and stopped to ask if he was okay. He said he was great and wondered what I was doing at his school. I simply told him I would talk to him in a little while…”just keep playing and having fun.”

To make a longer story shorter―I found his teacher in her classroom crying. She reported to me that she had been showing her students a VHS recording of the Challenger exploding just seconds after the take-off…multiple times. She also informed me that my son was drawing pictures of the explosion and talking to his neighbor, instead of paying attention to the recording. Furthermore, the other children were tearful and upset―just as was she―and “your son was laughing at his drawing.” She was hurt by Josh’s reaction and had chastised him for it. She gave me the picture (I have it to this day) and told me that my son needed help. She also let me know that she had been an applicant for the teacher slot (Teacher in Space Program) that Christa McAuliffe had been awarded.

What’s my point? It was obvious to me that she was very emotionally traumatized by the disaster and that she didn’t intend to harm the children in her class…but, the unintended consequences of her actions were not helpful in the recovery. Indeed, they were harmful. This is an example of the power we adults (parents, teachers, grandparents and other caregivers) have in promoting or disrupting healing and balance in our children’s life. Let’s be prepared to be intentionally helpful…our children depend on us in times of need.

Early and proper intervention is our psychological first aid. Loss of control and a sense of helplessness requires that we do almost anything at all rather than focusing on our own misery. Also, our healthy attitude toward the event and our symptoms is all-important. Both of the above reduce the risk for developing PTSD by playing an important role in returning us to balance.

For more information about emotional recovery after a disaster go to www.helpguide.org/mental/disaster_recovery_trauma_stress_coping.htm.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Until next time: Claim your power and expand your dreams. ~Dr. B

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