By Dr. Michelle Bettin, Licensed Clinical Psychologist and University of the Bahamas Director, Counseling and Psychological Services
Everyone is affected by events like Hurricane Dorian and COVD-19. Events this wide-reaching and devastating change our views, our beliefs, and our lives. While not everyone reacts in the same way, we are all impacted in some way whether it be physically, emotionally, financially, or spiritually.
We must attend to the mental and emotional aspects of health in times of crisis! Most people are “stressed” by events like these while some feel powerful emotions like terror, uncertainty, or powerlessness. Intense stress and emotional states weaken the immune system and make us more vulnerable to illness, distress, emotional dysregulation, and mental health symptoms. If left unattended, the symptoms can evolve into conditions that require more intensive treatment.
The effects of stress are cumulative. Resilience is demonstrated when an individual is stressed and then bounces back; this generally requires some recovery time. The Bahamas has not fully recovered from Hurricane Dorian and even earlier storms. Now, we face the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of our resources (financial, coping, emotional, etc.) are depleted, making us more vulnerable to the effects of this current stressor.
People who are struggling are more vulnerable. Even the strongest individuals can only endure so much! Individuals with a lot of stress and/or pre-existing mental health conditions are more likely to be affected by additional trauma and stress. Support and treatment increase their chances of a recovery and full, productive lives. But trauma and mental health issues are not always a curse.
Stress and trauma can also lead to growth. This is more likely if you have support, if your emotions are recognized and validated, and if you have time to make sense of your experience and recover. Similarly, working through a mental health issue can make people more resilient, compassionate, and effective.
We can foster recovery and resilience through intention and action! Prevention and early intervention reduce the impact of stressful events. Here are some strategies to help ourselves and our loved ones recover and prevent additional symptoms or mental health issues:
Establish structure and intention. Set routines to gain a sense of control over some aspects of life. Do something every day that supports wellness, joy, and stress relief. Take this opportunity to do something to improve yourself.
Maintain physical not emotional distance. Stay connected to your support system. Connection reduces stress and the impact of stress on the body.
Recognize that thoughts matter. Expecting the worst possible outcome, is not helpful. Reduce distress by noticing and challenging unhelpful thoughts, taking new perspectives, practicing gratitude, and minimizing exposure to sensational information. Be confident that your actions and diligence affect the outcome.
Attend to emotions. Take time to reflect on what you are feeling. You can cope with those emotions by talking, journaling, meditating, laughing, and through art, nature, creative movement, and prayer. Ask your children and other family members how they are feeling and listen to what they have to say. Do not jump to giving advice, just listen and express you care.
Remember emotions and stress affect the body. Reduce vulnerability to stress and address body-based stress symptoms through adequate sleep, good nutrition, yoga, exercise, and breathing practices. Ideally, engage a variety of these activities to support wellness and stress tolerance.
Strive for kindness and compassion. Emotions are contagious. Although stress, agitation, and tempers might be high, try not to let those emotions triumph. Instead, aim to be kinder and more compassionate; the world needs these sentiments now more than ever.
Choose healthy coping strategies. Be cautious of choosing the quickest and easiest ways to cope because those coping strategies are usually not the healthiest or best for long term coping. Avoid relying on substances, food, gambling, social media, shopping, or avoidance/withdrawing to cope. These strategies can become problematic and provide temporary relief rather than addressing the underlying emotions or issues.
Get good information. Avoid gossip and negative, sensational news. Instead, rely on science/fact-based news and minimize your exposure to media coverage. A few minutes of news daily can provide all you need to know. Look for balanced perspectives and those offering solutions and practical suggestions.
Accept there is no new normal. This is an era of “firsts.” The climate, the world, and our international connectedness is changing. Do not try to settle in, get good at adapting and addressing the sources of change.
Overall, remember we will get through this! We can minimize the impact of this pandemic and increase the nation’s resilience by attending to our emotions and mental health. We cannot afford to ignore and stigmatize suffering in ourselves and our loved ones. Now, more than ever, we must be active in preventing and treating stress and attending to our mental health!