The terrorist attacks on the US and the 2005 hurricanes have had a profound impact on America's psyche. Whether the tragic events were witnessed firsthand or seen on television, millions of Americans have been exposed to the trauma of full-scale disasters.
Even though the initial shock has now faded, everyone must continue to cope with a lingering sense of apprehension and fear. Here are active strategies to help you maintain your emotional health in uncertain times…
- Talk about your feelings. Most people instinctively seek the company of friends and/or family after traumatic events. This is a powerful aid in processing grief, fear and anger.
Don't isolate yourself. If you feel especially bad and need extra support from others, let them know.
- Take part in gatherings. In the aftermath of our disasters, Americans joined in houses of worship, parks and public places for candlelight vigils. Such occasions offer an outlet for emotions—and promote a healing sense of solidarity.
Similar gatherings continued to play an important role for weeks and months. If religion is a source of personal comfort, rely on it during these difficult times. Discussion groups and memorial tributes can also give you strength.
- Help others. Within hours of the terrorist attacks, lines of blood donors appeared at hospitals across the US. Such efforts not only fill vital needs, but also help counter the sense of powerlessness that makes traumatic events so painful.
Consider taking part in ongoing opportunities, such as donating blood, volunteering your time to comfort the elderly, collecting charitable contributions or supporting your local fire and police departments.
- Monitor your media exposure. TV keeps us on top of events. But ongoing special reports may intensify the effects of traumatic stress by endlessly repeating images of chaos and carnage.
By all means, stay aware of developments—knowing what's happening is an antidote to the anxiety generated by the unknown. But if you find yourself glued to the screen for hours, with your heart racing, take a break.
- Mobilize your defenses. Do whatever you find relaxing and calming. Walk off your anxiety-in a green, peaceful park or woodland. Meditate. Burn away adrenaline with vigorous aerobic workouts. Take a warm bath. Cuddle with a pet.
A regular program of whatever you find stress-relieving is important at any time. But especially now
- Accept your uncomfortable feelings. Extreme anger is a normal response to feeling attacked and helpless. But many people are frightened when they experience this powerful emotion. Aggression is a part of human nature, and there's a difference between murderous fantasies and actions.
Guilt after a disaster is normal, too. It's usually related to the understandable relief that others—not you—were the victims. For most people, anger and guilt wane spontaneously.
- Re-establish your normal routines. Returning to work and the activities that give you pleasure isn't an act of denial. It's an affirmation that life goes on.
Staying home won't resurrect anyone...while going out to dinner or a movie makes a small contribution to the whole nation's economic and emotional recovery. There's no need to feel guilty about enjoying yourself.
- Trust in your own resilience. Americans have never had to deal with the kind of uncertainty that has long been a way of life in Israel, Ireland and elsewhere.
Over time, we will reset our emotional thermostats and become more adept at dealing with a world that seems less secure than it once did.
- Seek professional help if you need it. When painful feelings seem difficult to bear, counseling or psychotherapy can be helpful.
It's particularly important if symptoms—flashbacks, emotional numbness, increased anxiety—persist for a month or longer. That suggests the possibility of a more serious problem, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Similarly, if any emotional fallout-anger, guilt or depression-impairs your ability to live normally, don't hesitate to seek help.
To find a therapist in your area, ask your doctor for a referral.