Overcoming Stress from Hurricane Sandy: How to Survive a Superstorm-After It's Gone!
QUEER MINDS is a blog about LGBTQ issues in psychology, mental health and counseling. But this issue affects everyone, including pretty much every NJGayLife reader.
Okay, your power is back on, you pumped out the basement, your kids may even be back in school. You survived Hurricane Sandy, the Superstorm, the ‘Frankenstorm.’ So you should be feeling fine, right? Even brimming over with gratitude because no one you knew lost their life? Or at the very least – back to normal, instead of cranky, exhausted, sad, anxious or numb?
Wrong. The aftermath of an event like Sandy can last for weeks, even months. For starters, there are real-life consequences that take much longer to resolve: lost belongings, housing, cars. And the loss of income. Most of us lost money in some way in this storm, and a lot of us were stretched pretty thin already. I’m seeing a lot of people with faces creased by worry about how they’re going to get by financially in the near future.
But even if you lost next to nothing and aren’t worried about money – you may be feeling a post-Sandy slump. That’s because an event like this disrupts our ‘map of the world,’ literally and figuratively. Figuratively, because it forces us to really “Get It” that ultimately we don’t control anything about our lives, at least not the really important things like life and death. We don’t like facing this unpleasant reality. The first thing we do with this news is to deny it - I’ve already heard people ‘blaming’ the victims of Hurricane Sandy for not evacuating quickly enough. But back in the swampy underground of our unconscious mind - where lurk our darkest fears – we don’t forget. The ugly truth about Sandy is that the worst (and potentially the best) impact of the storm is to strip away our illusion of control and show us how transitory life really is.
No wonder we feel out of sorts – we are covering up an underlay of pure terror.
But on top of that, Superstorm Sandy disrupted our actual maps of the world- the routines we have established that get us through the day. What we do all day and the order in which it is done, the people we see, the routes we take to get places – all changed, again by forces outside our control. We need our little routines more than we know. We get cranky when they are blown up.
And then there is the physical stress. Pretending that you are camping in a power outage gets old fast. Our bodies feel threatened by the chill and the sudden loss of light. They go into ‘survival mode’, pumping out cortisal and adrenaline in big, constant spurts. This in turn, makes us feel jittery, anxious and tired all at the same time. All of this physical stuff runs down our immune system, so we are more prone to colds, headaches, other physical suffering.
And when the stress subsides – the power is back, we are once again in familiar surroundings - we are physically exhausted, even if we were mostly couch potatoes during the storm and its immediate aftermath. We may sleep ten or twelve hours, but that sleep might be disturbed, full of nightmares or strange dreams, physically restless. The unlucky insomniacs will be constantly exhausted and ultimately need to resort to drugs to sleep.
It didn’t help that we set the clocks back Saturday. The early onset of darkness adds to the sense of doom and gloom and if you are prone to SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder – as I am, the drop In mood can feel precipitous.
In addition, most of us are reeling from ‘vicarious traumatization.’ When I drove through Hoboken today for the first time I was rattled and upset by the FEMA trucks on the main street. The pictures on the news were horrible and scary.
And one final thing, that may seem a little silly. We lost Halloween. Most cultures have feasts or celebrations to herald the end of the harvest, death, the beginning of winter. Ours is Halloween. Even though Christie declared November 5 as ‘alternate Halloween,’ in my area there were few trick-or-treaters. We could have used the lightness that happy kids bring.
So if you’re feeling listless, helpless or indecisive, jitty and emotional, fearful and anxious, if you can’t sleep or sleep too much, if your appetite is different, or you are just ‘out of sorts’ – you’re not crazy, you’re suffering from ‘post-Sandy stress syndrome’.
II. What You Can Do To Recover
The first, perhaps the most important thing you can do to help recover from post-hurricane stress is to accept that you have it. Yes, it’s over. Yes, other people had it worse than you. And yes, you are functioning at less than 100%, and may not be back to speed for a while.
Once you’ve accepted that you have been stricken, you need to admit you need to recover, and that recovery means devoting a little extra time and effort to your own well-being.
Here are some things that can help:
- Because so much of the stress from Hurricane Sandy was physical – being cold, being in the dark, being uncomfortable - our bodies are exhausted and battered. Give yourself permission to sleep more than usual, to take naps, to be easily tired.
- And make sure you eat well. Many of us consumed a lot of ‘comfort food’ during and before Sandy, which means a lot of carbs. Focus on protein, fresh fruit and veggies.
- Exercise, even if it’s only walking. Exercise and one other thing are as or more effective than antidepressant medications for depressed mood.
- Increase your exposure to daylight. Bright light is the second thing as effective as drugs for depression. Walking outdoors is one of the best things you can do – exercise and light at the same time!
- Consider purchasing a ‘bright light’ box if you are prone to SAD.
- Allow yourself to mourn if you've suffered losses. Losing material things can have psychological impact - it's okay to feel bad about it.
- Take it slow. Not only do you have to recover – you have to process what happened, even if unconsciously. These unpleasant reminders of mortality have to be turned over in our human minds until we can put them away in memory with an appropriate perspective. If you daydream more, are forgetful, get lost in reverie – that’s normal, that’s what is supposed to be happening.
- Along those lines - take time to relax, and if you've been considering meditating - now is the time to start!
- If you are still looking at disturbing images of the storm - give it a rest. You don't need to keep re-traumatizing yourself.
- Try to re-establish some of your routines - or alternate routines. We all need structure and predictability in our lives.
- If you are up to it, try to find something positive in the changes around you. I am less busy this week, and today I had the chance to have friendly conversations with two colleagues I normally would be too busy to chat with.
- speaking of friendly conversation - balance your need to hibernate a bit with some socializing and .....enjoying your connections to the world
- DO SOMETHING FOR OTHERS. It helps in so many ways, from the concrete to the personal to the spiritual. You can't control what happens to you. If you're lucky, you can try to transform pain into wisdom, perspective.....and love.
- Remember when I said the worst and BEST repercussions of an event like Sandy came from the realization of our own mortality and lack of control? Again, when you are ready for it – re-think your priorities. Maybe you’ll find you are completely happy with the way you were living pre-Sandy. But maybe not – and maybe now is the time to change that.
Margie Nichols, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist, sex therapist, and Executive Director of the Institute for Personal Growth, a counseling/psychotherapy center serving the LGBTQ community since 1983. http://ipgcounseling.com