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Monarch Experts Offer Tips on How to Cope with Stress, Anxiety Caused by Natural Disasters

natural disaster resizedOver the last couple of months, hurricanes, earthquakes and wildfires have caused devastation across the globe.

The Carolinas have been a potential target for extreme weather, too, as they are every year during hurricane season. This September in particular, Hurricane Irma posed a major threat in early forecasts we haven’t seen in decades, not just to the coastal regions, but inland as well.

While Irma took a drastic turn away from North Carolina, some of the Monarch staff and people we support have friends or family who were impacted in other areas. Some of them may have experienced the stress of being away from home wondering what they would have left to return to, while others may have decided to stay in the path of the storm experiencing its full wrath.

story1aCoping with crisis and working to overcome tragedy can be overwhelming. Monarch’s Executive Vice President & Chief Operating Officer for Behavioral Health, Daniel Brown said a range of emotions is normal following a disaster, but those feelings should not be ignored.

“Just the television coverage itself of Irma, Harvey, and Maria could trigger a reaction like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for people who have been through a hurricane or natural disaster before. Just watching those images can trigger that trauma experience,” Brown explained.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) symptoms someone may not be recovering from a natural disaster can range from anxiety, constant worrying, trouble sleeping, and other depression-like symptoms. These are common responses to disasters before, during, and after the event. Even full-on panic attacks where the person feels that they are in life-threatening, immediate danger are common.

The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 - Nov. 30, peaking through late October, there are still several weeks left of potential storms. Monarch’s outpatient services offer Cognitive Behavioral Treatment (CBT) and Mindfulness - both treatment options can help make coping with a disaster manageable.

“We teach people skills to lower their anxiety and manage those feelings associated with the traumatic event. We can also refer them to psychiatry if it’s acute and they can get short-term or long-term medication depending on their symptomology,” said Brown.

Monarch Behavioral Health Therapists and Mindfulness experts, Karen Holst and Jude Johnson, conducted three mindfulness trainings leading up to Hurricane Irma’s impact for Monarch staff, which teaches participants how to be aware of feelings without judgment.

“When we are facing uncertainty related to a natural disaster, it is wise to be informed and prepared. On the other hand, it is not helpful to check the news feed every hour to track the hurricane, because obsessing will not make us more prepared and can lead to increased anxiety and frantic decision making. When stress becomes unmanageable it is harder for us to understand what others are saying and can be equally challenging for us to communicate our ideas clearly,” said Johnson.

Pausing for a few minutes to acknowledge your feelings can help formulate a wise response instead of a reaction with no direction. Mindfulness techniques before a natural disaster are no different than for any of life’s other events and are just as important following a natural disaster to help in the recovery process.

“It's very natural to focus on the loss and devastation, but the time after a disaster can also be an opportunity to identify what is really important in your life. Transferring the energy used from focusing on devastation to focusing on the love for family, friends, and your own life can be healing. We often feel separate and alone when we are suffering, so perhaps see if you can look at the present moment with a sense of gentleness and openness, as this will allow increased connection with others and nurtures a sense of belonging,” said Holst.

Johnson and Holst also recommend placing focus on helping others to provide an opportunity to heal as well. If we are unable to provide support to others, mindfulness teaches us to allow ourselves to feel what we feel with as much self-compassion as possible. We can remind ourselves this event will not last forever.

Anyone who feels overwhelmed by their feelings is encouraged to get professional help by contacting Monarch at (866) 272-7826.

Photo: Daniel Brown

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