By Janaki Jane
Maybe you’ve noticed it, since the flood: you’re not sleeping as well, or your family is a little more irritable, or your neighbors seem overwhelmed. Maybe a friend who used to have one beer now
has two, or a child is scared when it rains, or it’s just too hard to concentrate to fill out all of those forms.
These are normal responses to an abnormal event. Last week a group of people working in flood recovery in Boulder County attended a workshop about traumatic stress given by Janine D’Anniballe, Ph.D., Director of Access, Emergency and Community Services /Cultural Competency Coordinator at Mental Health Partners. She made the point that trauma is when we feel a risk to personal safety, which also means that we have lost control. This is scary for anyone.
There are many ways to respond to a traumatic event. Everyone responds differently. Some react very obviously and strongly and everyone around them can see it. Some people have a less obvious reaction. The question becomes: what do you do about it?
Last week Dr. D’Anniballe explained that living through traumatic events like the flood can actually change how the brain works. The balance in the way nerves talk to each other is disturbed by traumatic stress. This can lead to feelings of anger, anxiety, sadness, insecurity, and fear. It can also produce sleep disturbances, feeling flat or disconnected, tantrums, hyperactivity, clinging, changes in sleep and eating patterns, among other things. Everyone reacts in their own way to this imbalance in the brain. The answer is to do new things to calm down the brain.
Touch helps. Pet the dog or cat, a lot. Maybe get a massage, or facial or manicure, if those appeal. Ask for more hugs, if you’re a hugger. Hold hands with someone special.
Breathe. Breathe in for a count of three; breathe out for a count of five. Whatever counts work, just make the exhale at least two beats longer than the inhale. This activates the part of the nervous system that calms down the entire body, and can actually rebalance the way the nerves talk to each other at the synapses, which is causing the problem in the first place. Laughing does the same thing. That means that watching a funny movie, getting together with those friends who make you laugh, or even just telling silly jokes with a child can help heal the trauma and stress.
Mindfulness, meditation, and yoga help in big ways, too. Mindfulness doesn’t have to be anything formal. It can be as simple as sitting on the porch quietly and staring at the mountains for a few minutes, or focusing on a peaceful picture or thought.
It is important to stop, to rest, and to relax. This can be hard when the nervous system is in this state. Starting small helps here, just like it does with every suggestion in this article. Set an alarm on the phone, maybe a pleasant sounding one, to take a two minute time-out and breathe, stare, take a quick walk without the phone.
Exercise is always good at changing the chemical balance in our bodies, and learning something new helps the brain to reset itself. Perhaps there’s a game, a language, a skill you’ve always wanted to learn, a hobby you’ve wanted to start. Now is a good time to move into that. It might feel like too much, like you’re already too overwhelmed, but actually, in the long run, it will help.
One of the best things to do is to talk to someone safe. This might be a friend or family member, but sometimes they are going through their own stress, or maybe they just can’t hear it anymore. That is a good time to go to a flood story event, drop in on a community support group, or even to make an appointment with a therapist. Sharing with others about how you are feeling and being heard and accepted gives the brain and body a chance to calm down.
The Lyons and Environs Colorado Spirit Flood Recovery Team offers community support meetings on Wednesdays, at 6:30 p.m., in the Walt Self Center. These groups are just a chance to share what is going on for you, in a safe space. There will be groups for the Raymond/Riverside and Allenspark communities starting soon, too. And watch for Flood Story Open Mic events coming soon. The team is also here to listen to you, and to provide crisis counseling.
Colorado Spirit Teams in Boulder County are a program of Mental Health Partners.