Amid wildfires, hurricanes and other natural disasters, many people are rightfully focused on the fundamentals of survival: food, clothing and shelter. Attending to the emotional health of those directly impacted, as well as their friends, relatives, and first responders, is also tremendously important.
At a time when life’s circumstances may feel unmanageable, it may be helpful to know that there are steps you can take to help restore physical and emotional well-being and a sense of control – even in the wake of disasters or other traumatic experiences. These include the following:
- Recognize that it is alright to grieve for whatever has been lost, whether that be material possessions or a sense of safety, security, and certainty. The sense of loss may vary in intensity and frequency during the days, weeks and months to come.
- Continue or consider beginning a daily gratitude practice. Gratitude is associated with a range of benefits including improved psychological and physical health, increased self-esteem, and enhanced empathy. Taking a few minutes to jot down what you are grateful for at the end of the day may also help you sleep better.
- Take a break from the news. Often the media cycle repeatedly through worst-case-scenario stories that may not be representative of all the events occurring in your area.
- Establish or re-establish routines. Predictable routines maximize a child’s sense of safety, and help provide a dependable structure for adults. Focus on having meal times, sleep/wake times, and other activities on a consistent schedule to the extent possible.
- Stay hydrated, and choose nutritious foods if you have an option to eat nutrient-rich foods rather than foods high in processed sugar. To aid digestion, which may be impeded during stressful times, take a few moments to breathe deeply and quiet yourself prior to eating. Chew food thoroughly before swallowing.
- Try to move away from thinking about “why” bad things happen, or what “could have been” or “should have been” if only something had happened differently. This can leave your brain feeling as if it’s on high alert as you process the traumatic event repeatedly. Instead, it can be helpful to ask, “What can I do right now to help me feel better?” The action you take may be as simple as talking to a friend, eating, drinking water, stretching, or engaging in physical activity. This can help reset the brain to reduce anxiety and allow a focus on the here and now.
- Dealing with a crisis often requires decision-making on housing, childcare, and other aspects of daily living. If possible, delay big decisions such as relocating, starting a new job, or making changes in key relationships. A helpful phrase to keep in mind: “When in doubt, don’t.”
- Talk it out. It’s easy to feel isolated and alone during a crisis. Stay connected with friends, family and neighbors. Shared experiences can build a sense of community and belonging.
Tips to assist pets
Dr. Bonnie V. Beaver, a board-certified specialist in veterinary behavior and animal welfare, offers these tips for helping pets:
- Maintain as much of a routine as possible, especially with routine pet care activities such as feeding and exercise. If this normal schedule is disrupted, re-establish it as quickly as you can. “The change in schedule experienced by both pets and people during a disaster is the biggest cause of stress for both,” according to Dr. Beaver.
- Comfort each other. The simple act of petting reduces anxiety for both people and pets.
- If possible, keep your pets with you during evacuation. Pets, especially dogs, undergo stress when separated from their owner. Animals that have to go to shelters can experience the added stress of noise, proximity to other animals, 24-hour lighting, and unfamiliar people.
- Provide your pet with comfort items, especially if you can’t be together. “When it is not possible to keep your pets with you, provide them something with your odors on it—like dirty T-shirts or socks, an old shoe, towels, or pillowcases. Animals are very sensitive to odors, and the familiarity of those personal items will bring some comfort,” said Dr. Beaver.