Guest commentary: Post-traumatic growth, thriving after community disaster is essential
When a catastrophe such as the Lake Christine Fire strikes, we anticipate a decline in mental health; paradoxically, it also presents the potential to thrive. It is during these challenging times that we witness our social resilience.
We band together and become a tribe. After disasters, rates of depression and suicide often drop, while courage, loyalty and selflessness become prominent, with studies as far back as World War II demonstrating declines in both psychiatric needs as well as suicides. The same was seen in many communities after 9/11. As social solidarity increases, we move to a communal system as opposed to a hierarchical one. While trauma disrupts, community and culture seem to restore.
In the face of potentially life-threatening events, our survival instincts activate, increasing our vigilance, to help us survive. Nearly everyone exposed to a traumatic event reacts with some measure of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress, which serve to keep us out of harm’s way until the perceived threat passes. The initial presence of these symptoms is not pathological but appropriate. What we may experience as “jumpy” is a result of an acute awareness of our surroundings. We have a heightened ability to sense, hear, see and escape danger. Sleep is lighter so we will wake up if there is a problem. Our pain tolerance naturally increases, and the inflammation in our body builds in preparation to heal any injuries.
Only 1 out of 5 people involved in a natural disaster are likely to meet the criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which develops when symptoms become amplified and continue for longer than one month. Naturally, we experience stress in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event. We have an innate drive toward regulation and organization; thus, resilience and recovery are the norm.
Positive perceptions of growth can coexist with the negative effects of traumatic event,s and growth through adversity is referred to as “post-traumatic growth.” A wall in war-torn Bosnia reads, “It was better when it was really bad.” Often, when we experience crisis on a community level, we experience a sense of belonging and tribe ethos. Communities become closer; relationships evolve, we develop new priorities and goals; we may even notice changes in what we believe is valuable in life.
It is important to continue the social connections and group activities that nurture the tribe ethos experienced during the crisis. When our stress response system is chronically activated, the regions of the brain that support social connections with others become relatively inactive. Social interactions encourage our stress-response system to disengage; the effects are almost immediate. Support groups facilitated by mental-health workers following a natural disaster provide a safe place to nurture the sense of strength and belonging we might have experienced during the initial stages of the trauma, while providing tools and skills to effectively manage difficult emotions. Greater communication among family, friends and neighbors, and seeking support are all associated with post-traumatic growth. Emotional expression, one of the best predictors of post-traumatic growth, helps desensitize negative feelings, builds closeness in our relationships and encourages an appreciation of our strengths.
Experts further recommend avoiding or limiting media exposure such as reviewing photos and/or videos of the event, which may actually reinforce acute ongoing stress responses. Spirituality and religious beliefs play an important role in meaning-making around negative events, giving us a sense of control over a difficult situation and providing comfort. Our efforts to positively interpret and accept traumatic situations also play a role in the process of post-traumatic growth.
While the Lake Christine Fire was traumatic, we can get through it safely and continue to thank our neighbors, first responders and firefighters, recounting our blessings and gratitude for the relatively minimal loss of property and no loss of life.
Stephanie Rae Morris, MA, is an expressive art therapist and Mary Horn, APN, is a psychiatric advanced-nurse practitioner at Mind Springs Health, Aspen.
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