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Stress and Recovery

Stress and Recovery


​Wilmington is on the road to recovery, but we certainly are not “back to normal”.  Hurricane Florence made her way to Wilmington almost 4 weeks ago.  Homes and businesses were flooded at the beaches.  Inland homes were damaged by flying debris and massive hundred-year-old trees being uprooted onto rooftops.  Flooding continued as waters surged and rivers flooded from torrential rains.  Some people evacuated finding themselves worried about what was happening to their homes.  Many could not return to their homes due to continued flooding, making them feel helpless.  Other people stayed in Wilmington to weather the storm, losing power, running out of supplies, and feeling fearful as the threat of tornados and flood waters continued long after Florence had moved out of town.  Some people have lost everything.  Some people have lost little.  Some people have not been able to return to work and wages have been lost.  Others are working tirelessly to help repair the damage.

What does this all mean?  It means things will not be “back to normal” again.  Things will be okay, but they will not be the same.  Life experiences change who we are.  This experience has affected each person living in coastal NC, and it has affected our community as a whole.  As we rebuild and start to repair life in Wilmington, it will be important to recognize what the immediate needs are and understand that will evolve over time. This goes for our children especially, as they may have less control of their experiences.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tells us that basic needs (food, water, shelter, safety) need to be fulfilled first followed by psychological needs (relationships, self-esteem) before self-actualization (achieving one’s potential) can be accomplished.

So, how does this apply to real life now?  For some the basic needs of food, water, and shelter returned after a couple weeks.  For many in our larger community, they continue to deal with homelessness and meeting basic needs for survival.  Connecting individuals to disaster relief, and volunteering with local organizations who are getting supplies to individuals in need are great ways to support building the physiological needs of our community as a whole.  If you are a teacher or work with children, remember that school performance and behaviors may be effected by this experience.

The second level of our basic needs being met includes feelings of safety and security.  When our safety is threatened, our bodies react.  This is a stress response that is intended to help keep us safe.  The “fight, flight or freeze” response is a larger conversation that I will save for a future blog post, but here is a link for more information about this response.  This physiological response in our body is like a smoke alarm.  Internally, our body is sending an alarm to say, “Things are not right.  Stay alert. Be ready to run.  Be ready to fight.  Be ready to protect yourself and those you love.”  This “alarm system” is an evolutionary advantage for humans and helps us survive.  The interesting thing is that during times of extreme psychological stress or trauma that alarm system can malfunction.  It is like the battery going dead in your smoke detector, and the high-pitched alarm sound keeps going off every so often even when there is no smoke or danger for fire.  This may look or feel like being on edge for no reason at all, increased irritability, restlessness, poor concentration, feeling “jumpy”, “spacing out”, having nightmares or disrupted sleep, tension in the body, and/or not being able to relax.  This response in our body means that even if we have a safe place to live and the threat of a natural disaster is not imminent, our body may still be signaling us to be on high alert.

So, what do we do with this information?  We pay attention.  We pay attention to ourselves and our own reactions.  We pay attention to our children and their responses.  We pay attention to our friends, family, and community, and then we respond with appropriate resources.  We take care of ourselves and those around us with self-care, rest, proper nutrition, exercise, and breath work.  We practice mindfulness and respond to others with kindness and compassion.  We manage our own expectations as we enter this “new normal”.  We talk to our kids.  Ask about how they are feeling.  Ask if they have questions about what is happening and the changes that are occurring.  Validate their feelings.  Support them in finding the resources they need to feel healthy in the mind and body.

As a community, we are recovering.  We will be OKAY, but it is also OKAY to hold space for what has been lost and what may continue to change.  In addition, understanding how this experience has impacted you and your children in important.  Some will be resilient.  Resilience is once again another huge topic that can be addressed in later blogs, but for some this experience will have little impact psychologically and physically.  For others, this experience may lead to acute stress responses, more severe trauma responses congruent with PTSD, or adjustment problems after the event.  Below are some ideas to help deal with general stress; however, if you notice ongoing problems please reach out to a mental health professional for support.

Ways to help your children deal with stress:

  1. Deep breathing
    • Taking deep breaths stimulates the vagus nerve which triggers the parasympathic nervous system to calm the body
    • With younger children, try blowing bubbles and encourage long slow breaths in and out
    • With older children, teach them to breath in for 4 counts, hold the breath for 1 count, and breath out for 4 counts
  2. Acceptance
    • Teach your child to accept the feelings they are having now as normal response to a terrible thing that happened.
    •  Teach them these feelings will change over time.
  3. Create habits and routines.
    • Keep a normal and predictable daytime schedule.
    • Create bed time routines and increase calming habits around sleep
  4. Talk and Listen!
    • If your child views news coverage of affected areas, talk about what they are feeling and what is being done to help
    • Ask about what they are thinking and feeling with no desire to “fix” or “change
  5. Practice mindfulness
    • When we practice staying in the present moment, we reduce the overall physiological response to stress
  6. Have fun!
    • Despite immediate stress or challenges, try to find small moments of joy and excitement with your child.
    • Read books together, play a game, or watch a funny movie.
  7. Connect with community.
    • Find ways to help your neighbors or community
    • Participate in a local food drive or help a neighbor with yard work
  8. When behaviors are concerning, ask for help!

*Photo from Simply Psychology