Disaster strikes…an event with sufficient impact to produce significant emotional reactions, and one that can carry significant consequences. In the range of our ordinary experience, such an event may be extremely unusual. Perhaps it is the first time that we have been in a car wreck, an earthquake, a flood, lost our job, missed the mortgage payment, or discovered a very unpleasant and unexpected truth about a person or a situation. The first time, any of these events constitute a serious crisis, with wide-ranging impact. The second or third time, these events continue to be real crises but may be approached with enhanced skills and capability to cope with their aftermath.
Whenever and however often these critical and extremely stressful events may occur, a few outcomes can be predicted as very likely to be experienced by most people. First, there will be potential and actual traumatic reactions to the event or incident, either immediate or somewhat delayed. Expecting no reaction or minimal reaction is unlikely, and a severely restricted reaction or no reaction at all may be a sign of poor cooping skills, an attempt to deny the impact of the stressor, or to minimize its seriousness. Second, there will be acute manifestations of stress (some purely psychological, other physical, or a combination of both) that must be managed and mitigated. Third, the stressful event may have an impact on the individual’s ability to function in his/her usual occupation, school, or even in carrying out daily routines. Fourth, the stressor may be of such magnitude and effect that short-term psychological or medical treatment may be necessary. Fifth, the best mitigating effects are produced by family support, peer group support and continued interaction in the workplace; isolating is an instinctive reaction when in emotional pain, but it is proven to be counterproductive when dealing with a severe stressor.
In critical incidents or severe stress situations, the first 24-72 hours after the event are the most crucial. It is important to provide to others or seek out for oneself a reduction in the intense reactions to the traumatic event. While it is normal and expected to have a stress reaction, even severe, people should be facilitated in their return to their routine as quickly as feasible. In this respect, re-establishing access to one’s social network prevents isolation and reduces anxiety. In recognizing similarities to others, being understood and supported while in pain, and not being judged or criticized for their reaction, people often are better able to cope with the challenges of troubled times.
Here are 9 ways of managing acute stressors that have been proven to work:
- Reaction. Allowing ourselves to have an appropriate reaction that is physical (e.g., crying), psychological (feeling upset), and social (reaching out for help), without much concern for how our grief or sorrow may “damage” our image with others. An attempt to look strong and to show no emotion in the face of a significant stressor may work in the short term, but if the reaction to its impact is not allowed to take place, this may create a situation of chronic stress over time.
- First Aid. Psychological “first aid,” education and follow-up are important. Talking to trained peers, chaplains, and/or mental health professionals may be just what is needed in the critical first few days following the incident. Longer term counseling or medical help may be needed to manage any anxiety or mood disorders (such as depression) that could be triggered by the stressor.
- Comfort. The basic human needs to be comforted and consoled when in distress and being protected from further threat or distress, as far as is possible, are important. This may mean moving away from the scene of the incident at least for a time. It is not unusual to need and benefit from a few days out of town visiting welcoming family members or very close friends, following a disastrous event or a major personal crisis.
- Basic Needs. Immediate care is needed to address any physical necessities caused by the severe incident. In the case of a natural disaster, shelter, food and warmth become critically important and take precedence over psychological interventions.
- Reality Testing. Seeking goal orientation and support for specific reality-based tasks (“reinforcing the concrete world”) is important in mitigating the effects of a severe stressor that may make the individual feel like “the world is coming to an end” or “this is too much to even comprehend” and any severe symptoms of derealization or detachment.
- Relationships. It is important to facilitate the reunion with loved ones from whom the individual has been separated. If this disruption of relationship occurs, reuniting parent and child, or spouses, or siblings, is critically important. If an immediate reunion is not possible, providing good information as to the loved ones’ whereabouts and health is the next best thing.
- Talking. At the earliest opportunity, the telling of the “trauma story” and the expression of feelings as appropriate for the particular individual should be facilitated. Even though not everyone may be willing to go into details as to what happened, at least not right away, providing the earliest opportunity to say what happened and what it means to the person affected is critically important.
- Ongoing Support. If the individual seems to be “lost” in the magnitude of the event, linking the person to systems of support and sources of help that will be ongoing is never a bad idea. The key is the continuity of support. For some incidents or severe stressors such as the loss of a loved one, this support may need to continue for weeks and months to come.
- Regaining Mastery. Eventually, after all the critical “first aid” interventions have been taken care of, the goal becomes the restoration of some sense of mastery, a regaining of control over one’s life, a new beginning and the ability to deal effectively with the new situation created by the incident. The memory of what happened will most certainly never go away, but its traumatic impact on distress and functioning is meant to fade over time, when new ways of coping have been successfully put in place.