Coping and Disaster Recovery for the Health Care Professional
During the recovery phase following the disaster, both you and your patients will continue to experience stress, grief, and perhaps even some symptoms of depression and anxiety. During this recovery phase, physical problems such as changes in sleep and appetite, digestive problems, more susceptibility to colds or other illnesses, and increased use of alcohol and other drugs are also common. We may also have emotional responses, such as fear, irritability, nightmares, difficulties concentrating, feelings of betrayal, and loss of interest in everyday activities.
What can you do to cope, and to facilitate patient coping, in your journey toward recovery from disaster? Here are some helpful suggestions:
- Use grounding, a technique designed to keep your experience in the “here and now” and remind you that you are alive and present to life. Teach patients this technique as well.
- Take time every day to focus on your breathing as a calming and centering strategy. You can educate patients about the contribution of conscious breathing to wellness, and demonstrate this in your work as well.
- Experiment with watching your thoughts to identify those that may be catastrophic or lead to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. A healthy outlook on life, for both you and your patients, makes resiliency and recovery more achievable.
- Challenge negative beliefs. Replace such thoughts as, "I always have bad luck...nothing will better from now on...everything is going wrong," with, "Is there any real reason to think that...maybe things will change for the better?"
- Adjust self-talk. Convert negative messages into positive ones. For example, replace "I’ll never get through this," with "I can do this, but it’s normal and okay to feel scared and overwhelmed."
- Use previous ordeals that have been successfully overcome as a "power base."
- Consider alternative outcomes for worst-case scenarios. For example, "I can still see my friends, I can enjoy the little things in life."
- Imagine how this event will be viewed in the future, remembering how things do change over time.
Some patients will be resistant to these strategies and perceive you as suggesting that their struggles are “all in their heads.” Educating them with some easily understood techniques and examples will tend to diminish this perception.
- Learn to manage anxiety through such strategies as guided imagery and relaxation. Include information about anxiety and its management in your office literature and handouts.
- Teach your patients about the need for support systems or groups to reach out and connect with others, especially those who may have shared the stressful event. Consider affiliating with the a disaster-specific subgroup such as these for physicians, chiropractic, physical therapists, and nurses.
- Use empathic listening in your interactions with patients around disaster. Also, seek out in your circle of friends, family, and spiritual community those who will listen empathically to you.
- Teach patients the need for emotional expression, and practice this yourself. “Getting things out” helps.
- Exercise can contribute to greater well-being following disaster. Teach patients this principle and help them to develop an appropriate exercise plan. Practice it yourself.
- Use prayer, meditation, or other spiritual practices, which are common and helpful coping strategies.
- Understand that your service to others, even in the midst of your own response to the disaster, can help you cope with your struggles in a kinder and clearer way.
- Use creativity to fill your life with “food for your soul.”
- Take planned breaks such as going to the movies or doing some light reading to remind yourself that you are recovering and that you are well.
- Maintain relationships with your pets to give and be given coping gifts.
- Nourish yourself through healthy eating and drinking, and avoid self-medication, alcohol, or other drugs.
- Write about your experience in detail, just for yourself or to share with others.
Remember that people who engage fully in recovery from disaster discover unexpected benefits. As they gradually heal their wounds, survivors and health care providers alike find that they are also developing inner strength, compassion for others, increasing self-awareness, and -- often the most surprising -- a greater ability to experience joy and serenity than ever before.