Many blogs predict tough times ahead for society and tout the importance of “beans, bandaids, and bullets” in one’s preparations. Psychiatric findings based on examining and/or counseling patients who have survived disasters, (personal, military, social, natural) instead suggest that the most important preparation is actually mental, emotional, and psychological preparedness.
There are many examples of people who have next to nothing to survive on successfully achieving survival -- often of out of nothing but thin air and the proper attitude. Whereas there are also plenty of cases of people who, having nearly everything by relative standards, fall to pieces when they lose their emotional self-regulation and their proper judgement along with it. In other words, you can have all the food, health, and self-defense stores you want, but without good mental hygiene and the proper thinking that goes along with it, all of your physical preparations can be meaningless.
The information below is presented to help you develop some simple skills to manage your own emotional responses that might result when tough times hit, and to help yourself, your family, and your friends develop the resiliency that may help you fare better through such times.
The Impact of Stress
Traumatic events -- job loss, injury, death of a loved one, divorce, financial loss, crime, and societal upheaval, to name just a few -- have an impact on body, mind, and spirit. When we human beings experience such events, it releases a pharmacy of stress hormones and other chemicals within our bodies. This frequently manifests as a set of physical reactions. We can often begin to experience stomachaches, headaches, fatigue, dizziness, trouble sleeping, pain, and changes in appetite. It is not related to a disease, infection, or injury, but to the body’s stress response.
Stressed humans also commonly experience cognitive or thinking challenges such as trouble making decisions, difficulty with remembering things, trouble concentrating, and recurring thoughts about what has happened and what we’ve witnessed.
And our behaviors and emotions can change due to the stress we’ve undergone, making us more likely to be irritable or aggressive, cry more often, withdraw from our loved ones, feel terribly guilty or depressed, feel panic, engage in more risky behaviors, or “self medicate” with drugs or alcohol.
We may experience a change in our relationship towards our faith, becoming angry over what has happened, losing interest in prayer, or avoiding worship settings and rituals that were formerly very important to our spiritual lives. The opposite may also happen, where there may be a renewal in faith life following a terrible loss.
Following a major disaster, many people will have lost loved ones but be unable to access the services and rituals that would typically help them through the grieving process. For example, mortuary services and funerals may not be possible in the events of mass casualties, civil breakdown, or pandemic diseases. Community support may be limited because so many have experienced deaths in their own families and are unable to reach out and help others. This may lead to bereavement complications and depression.
Younger people are perhaps most at risk in stressful situations, particularly when they have seen their parents be stressed by the same situation. Children may regress in their development, acting much younger than their age. They may begin to wet the bed, play like a younger child, or have trouble being able to separate from their parents or loved ones. Nightmares are common. In young children, you may see repetitive and obsessive play as they re-enact the event(s) they have experienced. This is how a young child attempts to understand the event and regain some sense of control.
Not uncommonly, older folks often actually do better under stress than others, possibly due to their life experiences. Some have termed this “stress inoculation.” The elderly can provide wisdom from their perspectives as well as information from their life experiences. On the other hand, seniors who have some dementia may become very agitated and confused if away from familiar settings and routines.
Individuals with pre-existing mental health issues such as anxiety, depression or psychosis may of course decompensate tremendously. Without the access to needed care and appropriate medication, patients with significant psychological disorders can require much help from those around them in more trying times. Individuals with mental disabilities, such as developmental delays or head injuries, may experience confusion, fear, and disorientation.
Developing Emotional Resilience
Now let's focus on how it can be under our power, to some degree, to stack the odds in favor of the more positive outcomes for ourselves and our loved ones.
Many people think that psychological trauma necessarily results from experiencing a disaster. It may surprise some to know that research shows that the most common response to the trauma of a major disaster is not Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”), but actually improved stress tolerance and strength --- what we call ‘resiliency’ --- and growth. People are pretty good at overcoming bad things without any help from professional counselors or other mental health types.
Resiliency to stress has actually been well studied. We now know what people look like who will tolerate stress well and with resiliency. Developing emotional resiliency is largely based around installing some of these “protective factors” into your own and your loved ones’ lives. Some of these factors are:
Those who exibit resiliency have a support system of family and friends who can share in the struggle.
Human beings are innately social creatures. We are designed to live in community with others. The lone wolf, living off the land all by himself, rarely thrives sustainably. Following disastrous events, people who have community support, friends and family, comrades, are more likely to survive. And survive well. It is well proven that groups of humans are more effective than individuals in identifying resources, sharing work, and in defense against outside forces.
Those who exhibit resiliency have spiritual practices which help them to find meaning and comfort even in hard times.
Practicing and studying your faith now will increase the level of comfort in a survival situation. Having a belief in a higher power can give people strength when all seems lost and will provide the hope needed to make life feel safe and secure. Get yourself right in whichever religious tradition you subscribe to.
There is an old saying that goes “there are no atheists in foxholes”. It may be true that you can suddenly discover your maker in tough times. However, preparing for tough times is enhanced when your prayer, study, worship, and charitable practices are a core part of who you already are.
Those who exhibit resiliency tend to have a mind-set of assuming they have control over their lives and decisions, vs. being at the mercy of disastrous events, or of others’ control.
We’ve all known people are quick to panic, tend to see the worst possible outcomes, magnify the impact, fail to see the good portions of any event. Those folks generally suck all the energy out of their companions and are not useful when the SHTF. Worse yet, they are at much-increased risk for acting on impulse, irrationally -- and often unsafely.
Contrarily, those who adopt a focus on what they CAN do to affect the outcome of a given negative situation are the ones who consistently have better outcomes. In nearly every event, even in a worst-case scenario, there is almost always some way to mitigate. Human beings who see this and make efforts in this regard fare vastly better psychologically than those who assume that the situation is hopeless and that they have no control. This is even true when the efforts of those who try to effect some control have no significant success. In other words, even if your actions to effect control have no impact, your efforts still instill your psyche (and probably the psyches of those around you) with some positivity and resiliency to later psychological fallout.
You can cultivate this thinking in yourself; you don’t have to be born with it. This is probably best done now, in advance of future shocks, with the help of a skilled mental health professional like a psychiatrist, psychologist, or social worker. Make an appointment with one, and share with them your improved ‘mental hygiene’ goals such as above. Not all mental health professionals will understand such goals. If they don’t, move on to find one who does. They are out there. But if not, there are still things you can do on your own.
- Learn to recognize when you are making “thinking errors” that may negatively influence your ability to find control. These amount largely to glass-is-half-empty thinking, as you’ll see. For instance, magnifying -- some call this ‘catastrophizing’ -- turns a problem into a disaster. One way to counter such thinking is to ask yourself, "What is truly the worst case scenario with this event?” and then counter that thought with, “And what can I do if that happens?” In nearly every event, again, there will be some way to mitigate. Another related possibility is ‘negative bias’ thinking. A negative bias causes us to fail to see the possible positive outcome to a situation or decision, thereby narrowing options. Listing pros and cons and forcing the numbers to be equal can be a good exercise in learning how to counter your bias.
- Cultivate an “outside of the box” thinking style by asking “and what else could we do?” over and over, and using brainstorming techniques. In brainstorming, nothing is off the table initially. There are no stupid ideas. This allows interesting and creative solutions to pop up. And the point, again, is the process of seizing, or attempting to seize, some control over a negative situation. Even in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt, you are ensuring an improved psychological outcome for you. And probably many of those around you. It's much better than what would result from assuming helplessness.
Additional considerations for improving your emotional & psychological odds
There are plenty of reasons to worry in our world. That’s why we try to prepare ourselves for some bad eventualities. Preparing is different from worrying. Preparation of the mind, body, and local resources give us a feeling of security and reduces our anxiety. Remind yourself of the preparations you HAVE made. Focus on the positive.
If you find you have the same negative thought over and over, it helps to literally say “stop!” to yourself. Other interventions include putting a rubber band on your wrist and snapping it, as a way of reminding yourself to stop such thinking. Or simply find ways to distract yourself. These are examples of ‘thought stopping’ techniques often taught by mental health professionals. Counter irrational beliefs as soon as they pop into your mind. We all would do things differently, had we known then what we know now, but that is the nature of our human existence. We do the best we can with what we know at the time. No one can ask for more than that. Do not allow yourself to play the (past tense) “what-if” game.
We have to remember to ask ourselves one question when stuck in a bad situation: “If I died tomorrow would this have been worth getting upset over?” If the answer is no, then take a deep breath and move on.
Learn some ways to self-calm so that the thinking part of your brain is more able to work. When we become too scared, the lower sections of our brains take over. Those are the ones useful for “flight or fight”. However, when those parts of our brain are too activated, the thinking/planning/judgment part of our brain isn’t able to work.
Meditation is a great example of something that anybody can learn that allows you to sit at the control panel of your brain, and learn to turn down the ‘worry’ knob and the ‘stress’ knob.
Alternatively, learning simple breathing techniques allows us to be more centered so that we can figure things out better. Most qualified mental health professionals can train you in this, but it is essentially training yourself to focus on your breathing, instead of your thoughts. Visualizing yourself breathing in white, positive energy, and breathing out black smoke (representative of the stress you are ‘exhaling’) is one common bit of imagery that often works. What reliably results from focusing the mind on your breathing is a relaxation response.
Alternatively, finding a calming thought and repeating it in our heads, or out loud, can help.
Physical activity works for many. The benefits of vigorous daily exercise on the mind --- particularly for stress control --- are now very research-proven and cannot be overstated. The same is true for yoga, tai-chi, etc.
In groups, create chore lists on rotating schedules so that people do not get burned out doing the same thing over and over again.
Play games. Have fun. It is important to have social interaction during trying times. Play games like “I Spy” or make up riddles. Keep the mind occupied so that it does not wander into depression or anxiety. Distraction is a frequently helpful mental health intervention.
Sleep. This is one of the most crucially important components in your mental health armamentarium. If you are running a security detail during a time of crisis, make sure that the person appointed to security gets relieved and has a few days off to relax.
Make social connections. Again, we humans are social animals. We are wired for it. If possible, make social connections with like-minded individuals and groups (which you may have done in the preparation stage). Social support systems are necessary in disaster situations. However, stay guarded against situations that may jeopardize your security.
Engage in spiritual activities. Pray. Make peace with yourself, your make,r and/or the role you see for yourself in the universe.
It would be silly to believe that you will quickly recover from a traumatic event, so do not expect too much progress too soon. Do not rush the process.
An important one, in the acute setting: Let it out. If the crisis was bad, you may have suffered significant trauma. Unfortunately there is no magic fix to dealing with guilt and grief. We have emotions for a reason and need to allow ourselves time to go through the grieving process after tragedy. Emotions need expressing. Allow for yourself to feel the emotions and to be sad.
Do not dwell on what you could have done, but focus on your successes and the fact that you have made it as far as you have. Stay upbeat about the future and the difference you will be able to make.
Do the best you can to relive the traumatic images over and over. Allow yourself to visualize them as a life-sized picture in your mind, but then shrink them down until the images are very small. Then visualize them being filed away in your mind.
Create a tribute to any who you may have lost, if the times have been that disastrous, so that you can remember them and celebrate their lives. Take solace in your faith that they are in a better place. Do not allow the question of why they are gone, but instead ask how they lived. Use their memory to create in you a better self.
If suicidal thoughts enter your mind, remind yourself how you have survived thus far and the irony that you would take your own life after preparing to live for so long.
Talk to friends and family about your emotions. Let yourself express how you feel. By not doing so, you risk making yourself emotionally unstable. If you experience anger, sadness, violent outbursts, sleeplessness, nightmares, or other similar symptoms, make sure that you keep talking to others and keep confronting irrational beliefs and feelings of worthlessness or guilt.
In summary, there are a number of concrete actions you can take to improve your emotional and psychological resiliency. You have the power and choice which to take (if any). You are not at the mercy of fate.
If the developments predicted by the Crash Course come to pass, we may be in for a rough road. But in general, human beings are remarkably resilient survivors. It may never be the same as it was before, but you can grow from any tragedy. Keep the faith and finish the race.
With this, and attention to some of the above, you should be able to stack the odds in favor of emerging psychologically and emotionally intact, if not with some growth and added strength.
Disclaimer: This text is not meant to substitute for, replace, or amend proper psychiatric or psychological evaluation or treatment. All individuals who believe they may need psychological treatment are strongly encouraged to seek assistance from appropriately licensed mental health professionals. This advice is not provided for any reason other than informational purposes and is not intended for personal implementation except in the absolute absence of any other form of mental health assistance.