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Prepping the Space Between Your Ears, by Tona

I don’t recall a time in my life when I wasn’t doing at least some planning for “worst case” situations.  That may have come from growing up in an earthquake prone part of the country, and during the cold war when we drilled for nuclear attacks during the school day.  My mother, who was a single parent through much of my life, also modeled planning for “hard times” by storing food, following world and local trends closely, and being careful with money.  I became serious and more intentional in prepping following Katrina, when it confirmed my suspicion that we had better be prepared to take care of ourselves in a disaster, and after reading James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency,  and watching his predictions come true.  My spouse and children have endured my lectures, emails, nagging and copies of relevant articles with patience, and are also on board with their own preparations.

By training and background I am a clinical psychologist, with specialty training in health psychology, helping people manage the emotional impact associated with illness, injury and death.  In addition, I am active in disaster preparedness and disaster mental health, serving locally and internationally as a disaster responder.   I have truly seen situations in which it is TEOTWAWKI for those involved, where home, family, job, government services have all been lost.  And through my years in practice, as well as my work in disaster planning, it is clear that the most important preparation is not “beans, band-aids, and bullets” (although those are important) but mental preparedness and psychological flexibility.   I want to share some of the factors which come into play in big abnormal events such as natural disasters or terrorist events, because I believe we can take lessons learned from these into situations where it all comes apart, and we are left to stand and survive if we can.  In this essay, I’d also like to help you develop some simple skills to manage your own emotional responses and to help your family and friends.

It may surprise some to know that research shows that the most common long-term response to the trauma of a major disaster is not Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but resiliency and growth.  People are pretty good at overcoming bad things without any help from professional counselors or other mental health types.  That’s not to say that people aren’t affected by losing their homes, family members and security.  They are.  Most people show a range of symptoms in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, but tend to recover in about three months.   Some of the responses we should be prepared for are discussed in the next section. Some people will have some significant longer terms psychological issues following a disaster, but hopefully, those people will be in the minority. 

Common Short Terms Responses to Disaster and Loss:

Big events have an impact on body, mind, and spirit.  Once the initial phase of a disaster has passed, doctors begin to see many more patients showing up with MUPS (medically unexplained physical symptoms).  When we human beings experience a traumatic event, it releases a cascade of stress hormones and other chemicals in our bodies.  Sometimes, the body reacts as though the threat is ongoing and the condition can become chronic.  When the body is out of balance, we often begin to experience stomach aches, headaches, fatigue, dizziness, trouble sleeping, pain, and changes in appetite.  The distress experienced by someone who has those symptoms is real.  The pain is real.  It’s a real response to a real physiological change in the body.  But…it is not related to a disease, infection, or injury, but to the body’s chronic stress response.

We also commonly experience cognitive or thinking changes such as trouble making decisions, difficulty with remembering things, trouble concentrating, and re-occurring thoughts about what has happened and what we’ve witnessed.  And, our behaviors and emotions can change due to the stress we’ve undergone, making us more likely to be irritable or aggressive, cry more often, withdraw from our loved ones, feel terribly guilty or depressed, feel panic, engage in more risky behaviors, or “self medicate” with drugs or alcohol. 

We may experience a change in our relationship with God, becoming angry over what has happened, losing interest in prayer or avoiding worship settings and rituals, which formerly were very important to our spiritual lives.  The opposite may also happen, where there may be a renewal in faith life following a terrible loss.

Children and teens are vulnerable to all of the above as well.  In addition, children may regress in their development, acting much younger than their age.  They may begin to wet the bed or play like a younger child, and have trouble being able to separate from their parents or loved ones.  Nightmares are common.  In young children, you may see repetitive and obsessive play, which re-enacts the event(s) they have experienced.  This is the way a young child attempts to make sense of the event and regain some sense of control. 

Interestingly, the elderly can often do better under such duress than others, possibly due to their life experiences which have provided some “stress inoculation”.  Seniors can provide wisdom from their perspectives as well as information from their life experiences.  On the other hand, seniors who have some dementia may become very agitated and confused due to being away from familiar settings and routines.

Individuals with pre-existing mental health issues such as anxiety, depression or psychosis may, in the short term, temporarily get better.  It was reported that, following September 11th, many patients in psychiatric wards temporarily “cleared” their psychosis and the rates of suicide declined.  However, without the access to appropriate medication, patients with significant psychological disorders will need care and support.   Individuals with mental disabilities such as developmental delays or head injuries may experience confusion, fear, and disorientation. 

Many people following a major disaster will have lost loved ones, but be unable to access the services and rituals which would typically help them through the grieving process.  For example, mortuary services and funerals may not be possible in the events of mass casualties, civil breakdown, or pandemic diseases.  Community support may be limited because so many have experienced deaths in their own families and are unable to reach out and help others.  This may lead to complicated bereavement and depression.

When TSHTF How Can You Help Yourself?:

We cannot avoid bad things happening, but we can prepare ourselves psychologically so that we can more effectively use the tools, food, skills and other resources we’ve gathered.  People who do best when their worlds fall apart tend to have some specific factors helpful to their ability to survive and thrive:

They have a support system of family and friends, who can share in the struggle

Human beings are innately social creatures.  We are designed to live in community with others.  The myth of the lone wolf, living off the land all by himself, is just that…a myth.  Following disastrous events, people who have community support are more likely to survive.   Groups are more effective than individuals in identifying resources, sharing work, and in defense against outside forces.

They have spiritual practices which help them to find meaning and comfort even in dark times.

The old saying goes that “there are no atheists in foxholes”.  It may be true that you can suddenly discover your Maker in tough times.  However, preparing for tough times is enhanced when your prayer, study, worship, and charitable practices are a core part of who you already are. 

They have an innate style, or learned a psychological style of thinking which helps them remain more calm, more optimistic about their future, and more realistic about the threats to themselves and their loved ones, neither living in fear nor in denial. They tend to have a mind-set of assuming they have control over their lives and decisions vs being at the mercy of others’ control.

We’ve all known people who were quick to panic, tended to see the worst possible outcomes, magnify the impact, fail to see the good portions of any event.  Those folks generally suck all the energy out of their companions, and are not useful when the SHTF.  I’m assuming all those on forums such as this want to be useful and helpful and not a drain on resources during emergencies.  This involves practicing mental exercises in much the same way you practice marksmanship, canning, or gardening.

Here are some tools which may help you become more flexible and resilient in your approach if life takes a terrible turn:

Learn to recognize when you are making “thinking errors” such as magnifying, assuming, having a negative bias, or worrying unnecessarily.

    1. Magnifying turns a problem into a disaster.  For example, you may drop a case of canning jars and break them.  This is a problem.  It may create a resource limit.  Canning jars may be hard or impossible to get.  HOWEVER, it does not qualify as an End Of The World event.  Your family will not starve because of this one thing.  One way to counter Magnifying is to ask yourself “what is truly the worst case scenario with this event?” and then counter that thought with “and what can I do if that happens?”  In nearly every event, there will be some way to mitigate.
    2. Assuming creates catastrophes when there may not be one in the immediate future.  For example, I might assume that because Mrs. Smith doesn’t say “hello” to me she doesn’t like me.  I may further decide that if she doesn’t like me, she might wish me harm.  Because I assume she wishes me harm, I avoid her…and so on.  If I ask myself whether my assumption might be in error, and whether there might be another reason for Mrs. Smith’s behavior, I can flex my thinking to include the possibility that 1) Mrs. Smith didn’t hear me say “hello”, 2)that she might be distressed about something completely unrelated to me, 3) that she didn’t see me etc.  Those possibilities allow me to more realistically assess the whole situation and also provide me with a chance to practice more flexible thinking.
    3. A negative bias causes us to fail to see the possible positive outcome to a situation or decision, thereby narrowing options.  Listing pros and cons and forcing the numbers to be equal can be a good exercise in learning how to counter your bias.  The worst case of “negative bias” often happens in suicide.  It is tragic to see someone commit suicide because they truly thought there was no possible way they could manage something like losing a job, or breaking up with a girlfriend.  Suicides like that tend to happen because the person is in so much distress they are unable to imagine any outcome except the worst.  They cannot see anything but the negative and this leads to a deadly despair, due primarily to them not being able to identify any positive outcomes.
    4. There are plenty of reasons to worry in our world.  That’s why we try to prepare ourselves for some bad eventualities.  Preparing is different from worrying.  I tell my patients to watch out for “what if…” thoughts.  Sometimes “what if” thoughts can be helpful, such as when we try to plan for the “what if” the JIT delivery system doesn’t work.  But, if you find yourself feeling in a tizzy and uptight all the time, “what if” may be a marker for an anxious thought…e.g. “what if we can’t get food because the trucks are not running, and then what if the garden fails and then what if there’s a big EMP, and what if the nuclear material from Fukushima washes up the river from here and creates mutant zombies and we don’t have enough ammo….” and…well you get the picture.  Sometimes we need to set limits on those “what if” thoughts, so that we can be calm and emotionally more healthy when some of the “what if” stuff happens.  A great tool is “thought stopping”.  If you find you have the same negative or scary thought over and over, it helps to literally say “stop!”, find something to distract, or even snap a rubber band on your wrist.

Cultivate an “outside of the box” thinking style by asking “and what else could we do?” over and over, and using brainstorming techniques.  In brainstorming, nothing is off the table initially.  There are no stupid ideas.  This allows interesting and creative solutions to pop up.

Learn some ways to self-calm so that the thinking part of your brain is able to work. When we become too scared, the lower sections of our brains take over.  Those are the ones useful for “flight or fight”. However, when those parts of our brain are too activated, the thinking/planning/judgment part of our brain isn’t able to work.

    1. Learning simple breathing techniques allows us to be more centered so that we can figure things out better.  An example is “bubble breathing”.  In this technique, you pretend that you are blowing the biggest bubble you can with soapy water and a wand.  In order not to break the bubble, you breathe in softly through your nose, and breathe out very softly through your mouth.  This induces a relaxation response.
    2. Finding a calming thought and repeating it in our heads, or out loud, can help.
    3. Calming spiritual rituals such as reciting Bible verses or the Psalms uses our brains and our bodies and both distracts and calms.  For Catholics, meditating on the prayers of the rosary occupies mind, body and spirit in ways that allow for relaxation.
    4. Physical activity works for many, as does yoga

When TSHTF  How Can You Help Others?

What makes a good helper?

  1. Open communication, trust, empathy, honesty
  2. Recognizing that not all problems can be solved and not all people want to be helped
  3. Recognizing that the helper must set limits of time and energy, and values.  Helping does not mean that you destroy yourself trying to help another

In The First 24-72 Hours
In the first two to three days following a disaster or other large negative event, the focus needs to be on basic needs.  You can help by:

  1. Doing a self “check in” to make sure you have the ability to help someone else.
  2. Listening without trying to “fix “ the problem
  3. Making sure the person has access to food, water, shelter and some measure of safety.
  4. Helping the person locate other family members.
  5. Helping the person identify resources.
  6. Letting them know they are not alone in their reactions
  7. Answer questions honestly and simply

In An Ongoing Disaster, In addition to the foregoing

  1. Try to help them establish a return to some sort of routine, even if it is simply trying to eat at the same time each day
  2. Provide a quiet place, if possible, to reduce noise and other stimulation
  3. Help the person establish small and manageable goals
  4. Help the person to focus on “here and now”, and shorter term future vs long term future issues
  5. Request information about positive things in the person’s life: (“What do you do, on a day-to-day or weekly basis that you enjoy and which helps you feel less distressed?”)
  6. Teach them some ways to manage their bodies and their thoughts: A.) Deep breathing for relaxation and calming. B.) Thought stopping and thought replacement

If you feel that a person you are trying to help is dangerous to themselves e.g. suicidal, dangerous to others e.g. homicidal, or is suffering from a major mental illness e.g. bipolar disorder or schizophrenia DO NOT ATTEMPT TO HANDLE THIS ON YOUR OWN.  THIS NEEDS HELP FROM OTHERS.  IF THERE IS NOT A MENTAL HEALTH PROVIDER AVAILABLE, GET HELP FROM FAMILY, FRIENDS AND COMMUNITY TO ASSIST THIS PERSON SAFELY.

Bottom line…human beings are remarkably resilient survivors.  You can do some mental prepping so that your chances of remaining emotionally healthy, and being a helping resource are increased. 

I encourage you to visit the original post and author's website by clicking here: on 21 April 2012

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