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Finding a way to lighten the load, post-Irene

After a disaster, mental health experts say rebuilding the psyche is as important as bridges and roads

Suicides. Fire. Murders. Floods....

A succession of waves carrying tragedy crashed over the shores of Windham County this year, rubbing many residents raw and leaving hearts, minds, and bodies — and in the case of Irene, whole towns — waterlogged.

“What next?” has morphed from a simple question into a joke, a pleading, a superstition, a plan.

In the wake of the events of the past few months, people might experience a spectrum of reactions, said Dr. Jilisa Snyder, clinical director of the Brattleboro Retreat’s Anna Marsh Clinic.

These reactions, she said, can range from mild sadness to fierce emotions — emotions that can leave someone vulnerable to developing a condition like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

“When you’re stuck in a difficult situation with no apparent way out, you are a prime candidate for the kind of stress that taxes mind, body, and spirit,” wrote Snyder in an August 2010 article on workplace stress published in Healthcare Ledger.

On top of the community upheavals like the homicides in Dummerston and Brattleboro, Tropical Storm Irene destroyed businesses, jobs, homes, and washed out the roads connecting community facilities like hospitals.

Irene’s destruction raised the stress bar because it threatens people’s emotional and physical well-being, Snyder said.

Sudden losses cause a “shattering of the assumptive world,” Elizabeth Evans Pittman, bereavement care coordinator with Brattleboro Area Hospice told The Commons in August.

Communities build expectations and assumptions that help members move through their daily lives, she said.

A disaster changes a community in subtle and dramatic ways, said Snyder. And these changes can trigger feelings of loss, grief, or fear.

“Your everyday becomes your world,” said Snyder.

Snyder said that before Irene she would joke about Vermont’s wacky weather. For Snyder, her joke about the lack of natural disasters demonstrated a threshold of safety.

“I’d say, ‘Well, at least we don’t have natural disasters,’” she said. “But I can’t say that anymore.”

Snyder, however, offers words of support, saying that humans possess a natural process for recovering from tragic events.

“None [of this healing process] should be rushed,” she said.

Snyder said any strong emotions triggered by Irene people experience will take their own time to resolve.

“There’s so many different layers,” said Snyder — layers that won’t resolve in the short term.

To complicate matters, she said, people experiencing reactions triggered by traumatic events might not be fully conscious of their emotions.

According to Snyder, traumatic events go straight to the hypothalamus, the “fight-or-flight” area of the brain.

This area connects to the autonomic nervous system, which signals hormonal releases to prepare the body to fight for survival.

The hypothalamus bypasses the higher cortex of the brain, the area that analyzes information.

In other words, people might not even realize they’re reacting to a trauma, said Snyder.

Even months after a traumatic event, when a sight, sound, or smell triggers memories of that moment, people might experience an upset stomach, muscle tension, irritability, or headache and not understand why.

In time, most people will gain awareness of their reactions and find ways to resolve them, said Snyder.

But in the early days after a person experiences trauma, she said, it’s important that people don’t try to control their own emotions by judging or expecting themselves to feel a specific way.

Examples of trying to control yourself include saying you should no longer feel scared, or expecting to cry because you should feel sad, she said.

“Most coping mechanisms have positive value at different times,” she said, adding that “denial is probably the most brilliant adaptive defense that we have.”

People need to remember that recovery from a stressor like trauma is a process with lots of twists and turns, she said.

“Stress is not a bad thing,” she said.

“In fact, it is necessary for adaptation, it is one of the ways our bodies help us react to change and can actually assist us in meeting significant challenges,” Snyder wrote in the Healthcare Ledger article.

According to Snyder, stress-related problems arise when people don’t have “enough opportunities” to restore themselves.

“Self-restoration is key to processing stress,” she said.

Activities count as restorative when they provide a person with good feelings, peace, joy, and rest, said Snyder.

At the basic level, this means getting enough sleep, good nutrition, exercise, and a safe place to live, as well as staying connected with loved ones, she said.

But bubble baths, meditation, laughing at a slapstick routine, reading, and tossing a ball to Fido work too, said Snyder.

Many people think they shouldn’t feel good or have fun in the wake of a traumatic event.

Snyder shakes her head.

How can people expect to care or give to others when they have not cared for themselves and therefore have nothing left to give? she asks.

If people want to help their community it’s their duty to nurture themselves, she said: Visit your grandchildren, crack jokes, eat a good dinner, have fun.

This way, volunteers and caregivers can return to where the community needs them with full hearts, said Snyder.

Everyone is running on adrenaline right now, said Snyder. Challenges still await.

And the community will need to care for itself, she said, because the adrenaline will wear off long before the roads are fixed and houses rebuilt.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #118 (Wednesday, September 14, 2011).

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