With every news alert or breaking story, our world seems to be pushed further and further into crisis. It is taking a serious toll on our environment but also on our mental health.
In the past year, hurricanes battered communities around the globe, a monster earthquake wreaked havoc in Mexico, the American West erupted in flames and continues to burn, there have been more school shootings, and the Hawaiian volcano Kilauea is pouring lava into the Pacific Ocean, threatening the lives and homes of residents.
According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, the United States experienced 16 weather and climate disasters last year, with losses exceeding $1 billion and total costs of approximately $306 billion — a national record.
The United Nations’ disaster-monitoring system says that since 1970, the number of disasters worldwide has more than quadrupled, rising to about 400 per year.
With the surge of technology, social media and a 24-hour news cycle, exposure to traumatic events has rapidly increased over the past few decades, as well. According to a survey conducted by Pew in 2015, “65% of adults now use social networking sites — a nearly tenfold jump in the past decade.” Much of the public’s news consumption occurs on these digital platforms.
The world has always been stressful, but experiencing acute events occurring thousands of miles away is a new and challenging phenomenon. On any given day, it feels like the world is falling apart.
How can we brace for disaster and find the strength to withstand it? How will we adapt to our greater exposure to trauma? And will our mental health be sacrificed in the process?
This is your brain on disaster
Our brains are hardwired to process stress relating to trauma by entering what is known as “fight, flight, freeze” mode before returning to a restful state, explained Susanne Babbel, a psychotherapist specializing in trauma recovery. However, constant exposure to trauma can derail our ability to cope healthily and hinder our ability to return to a relaxed state.
“Every time we experience or hear about a traumatic event, we go into stress mode. We might go numb or have an overactive fear response to the perceived threat. Our physiology is triggered to release stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline,” Babbel said.
Ideally, after the perceived threat is resolved, the body’s resting state of homeostasis should be regained. However, recurrent exposure to traumatic events means the body is undergoing this process far more frequently than ever, interrupting this restful recovery.
“Over time, when we experience this process again and again, our adrenal glands can become fatigued. Adrenal fatigue can lead to being tired in the morning, lack of restful sleep, anxiety and depression, as well as a multitude of other symptoms,” Babbel said.
A literature review of studies about the effects of stress on the brain and body found that “acute stress responses in young, healthy individuals may be adaptive and typically do not impose a health burden. However, if the threat is unremitting, particularly in older or unhealthy individuals, the long-term effects of stressors can damage health.”
Chronic levels of stress can have myriad physical manifestations such as headaches, muscle tension or pain, stomach problems, anxiety and sleep issues.
Inundation of news and trauma can also lead to what is known as disaster fatigue, making us less concerned and more apathetic and feeling a diminished sense of urgency about the crisis at hand. Disaster fatigue occurs when prolonged exposure to news coverage of disasters causes potential donors or volunteers to lose motivation to address the problem.
“One way of coping to this continual exposure is not getting overloaded with the news and pacing yourself with your consumption. Everyone has a different limit, and you have to find out what your limit is,” Babbel said.
Setting a limit on how much you look at the news or go on social media can create the space and time for you to soothe your nervous system’s stress response and return to normal. This may require turning off push notifications on your phone or setting aside specific times to check world events.
“What is important is to pay attention to when you are overloaded when you start to get stressed, when you feel numb and moody or irritated or feel other outward symptoms of a nervous system response. Whenever you feel like you’re ‘off,’ that is a signal. That is your signal that you need to stop.”
To soothe the nervous system, you can use stress management techniques such as exercise, spending time with friends and family, and relaxation techniques such as meditation, deep breathing and yoga.
“The nervous system hijacks the logical brain,” Babbel explained. “Once you are triggered by a traumatic event or hearing about trauma, people will often say, ‘Just get over it.’ You can’t, because you don’t have logic.” All you can do is soothe your nervous system using the language it understands: sensation.
Using any of the muscles in your face or vocal cords, such as deep breathing, humming or singing, will help calm your nervous system. “That’s why soldiers often sing when they are going into war, to cope with the stress,” Babbel said.
Cultivating resilience together
As climate change heightens the frequency and intensity of natural disasters, preparing and recovering from crisis will become even more important. Traumatic events can dismantle the mental and social frameworks that support a healthy mind.
Even after the floodwaters recede, the wildfire is put out or the rubble is cleared, many individuals face heightened threats to their mental health.
“Across the board, one of the major mental health threats to well-being is feeling unmoored,” said Christie Manning, assistant professor of environmental studies and psychology at Macalester College.
“Think about the people who had their homes and lives destroyed by Harvey or Irma or the wildfires in California. People lose everything. Their lives become disconnected from their past and their community. They are now scattered,” Manning said.
The research points to social connection as the bedrock of resilience and the best way to combat apathy.
“The more that you are connected to others and you can call upon them, the more likely it is that your entire community will withstand,” Manning said.
The way forward is to learn effective ways to engage with reality without being consumed by it, explained Terry Osborne, a professor at Dartmouth College who studies the relationship of humans and nature. “The challenge is carrying the pain but not letting it bury you.”
Self-care can seem indulgent, even selfish, in the face of destruction. Personal problems can feel miniscule relative to the grave suffering and pressing global issues around the globe. But in crisis, self-care is one of the most selfless actions. Practicing the ability to self-soothe and improve our nervous system’s response to stress will buffer the negative impacts of crisis and help us help others.
Practicing self-soothing techniques is like building muscle; it will make us stronger and more resilient to crises. And as the legendary Mr. Rogers said, in times of disaster, “Look for the helpers.” Contrary to what many may expect, the most dire situations can lead people to be their best selves, serving others and coming together across difference.
Looking for the helpers, learning to soothe your fight-flight-freeze response and building social connections will help you stay afloat when you feel like you are drowning in bad news.
We might not be able to predict the future, but we can prepare for it using these strategies — a future that might be filled with catastrophe but that is hopefully brighter and more beautiful than the present.