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Tragedies and your mental health

How to care for your mental and emotional well-being when disasters happen in the world around us


By Emily Bulthuis, MSW, LICSW
October 17, 2017

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Tragedies resulting from violence, accidents and natural disasters are distressing. And sadly, they are all too occurring. Watching the news or scrolling through social media as these situations unfold can bring even the strongest person to tears. And sometimes, emotions related to disasters can be hard to work through. That can be the case if you have been directly impacted, or if you simply have empathy for those who are.

The overwhelming stress of tragic events can lead to mental health concerns.

These mental health concerns may include:

  • Sadness and depression
  • Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness
  • Irritability and anger
  • Fear and anxiety about the future
  • Constantly being on high alert and feeling a need to be ready for the next crisis (which is called “hypervigilance”)
  • Apathy and emotional numbing
  • Increased use or misuse of alcohol and drugs

Researchers have found that these kinds of mental health problems can persist for as long as three years after a natural disaster. And the symptoms can last even longer if the disaster resulted from human action.

Symptoms might even be telling of a formal mental health diagnosis, like PTSD or depression. Studies have shown that up to 50 percent of those directly impacted by a disaster will develop a mental illness.

How can you help yourself or a loved one through a tragedy?

Here are the top 5 things I recommend doing to take care of your mental health in the difficult times that follow a disaster:

1. Talk
Open up to a professional, loved one or support group about how you are feeling. Getting meaningful support from others and feeling heard is a critical for recovery. It can also be helpful to connect with others who have shared a similar experience.

2. Care for yourself
Eat well to fuel your body. Get enough sleep. And prioritize regular physical activity. These all have positive health benefits, especially when it comes to managing stress. You may find your body is more sensitive to substances like nicotine, caffeine, sugar and alcohol during times of increased stress – so be sure to limit your intake of them.

Also continue to engage in acts of self-care that bring you joy and promote rest and relaxation. Read a book, take a relaxing bath or try out a yoga class.

3. Plan positive, enjoyable activities
Be intentional about taking part in activities that you enjoy. It’s easy to forget to prioritize these activities when things are more difficult. But they are especially important during times of heightened emotional stress. Spend time outside with your children. Take your dog for a walk. Or plan an evening to spend with friends or loved ones.

4. Reduce exposure
Don’t feel bad about taking a break from the news and social media. “Unplugging” is actually very healthy. Too much news can worsen your fear response and increase stress. If you’re having trouble pulling away from screens, give yourself a limit of how many times per day you’ll check media outlets.

5. Help others
There are always ways to help those who have been impacted by a disaster. And helping others can help you! It gives you a sense of purpose which has been shown to have positive mental health results. Consider giving blood, collecting supplies or volunteering. Or research local and national organizations that have set up relief funds or drives that you can donate to.

Mental health challenges can be scary and confusing. You may feel shame or embarrassment, which is normal. It’s important to remember that these issues are common and treatable. Make It OK works to end the stigma that surrounds mental illnesses so people seek help. Conversations about mental health can be hard – whether you have a mental illness or you know someone who does. Learn what to say and what not to say. Then, take the pledge to end the stigma. Together, we can make it ok.

About Emily Bulthuis, MSW, LICSW

Emily Bulthuis is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who provides individual therapy to adults. She works in Park Nicollet’s Behavioral Health department. Emily earned her undergraduate and master’s degrees from the University of St. Thomas. Emily enjoys partnering with her patients to support them in improving their quality of life and emotional well-being. Her specialties include co-occurring mental and chemical health disorders. She also works with family members of those struggling with mental health matters. In her free time, Emily enjoys listening to podcasts, cycling and spending time with her family and black lab, Lucky.

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