As the holiday season draws to a close, we have moved from a holiday based on gratitude to a celebration of the birth of Christ (and other religious-based holidays) to settle on a time for ushering in the New Year and for making resolutions. For many, it has not been a smooth or joyful journey. Much of the country remains in the grips of what the Associated Press calls “one of the worst weather-related disasters” in history to hit certain areas, with extreme weather stretching from the Great Lakes to the Rio Grande. According to the National Weather Service, nearly 60% of the U.S. population faced some form of winter weather advisory or warning.
The NWS reports that relief is on the way, that temperatures are forecast to slowly rise. So will the accounting of the toll this extreme weather event has taken, of the lives lost, of heroic rescue efforts, of the damage that remains and the rebuilding that will commence.
If you live in, are in or are traveling through an area hit by this disaster, it’s likely it’s elicited an emotional response even if you have not directly suffered a loss. Our hearts go out to those who have. Just from seeing news reports, I’m guessing we’ve all had some form of emotional reaction. And it leads me to wonder what the collective toll might be on our sense of well-being when you have a weather disaster on top of the lingering effects of a pandemic?
Before the pandemic hit, most folks enjoyed a sense of control over their lives and the reassuring effects of predictability. Suddenly, we were faced with the fear or reality of contracting a deadly virus, with physical and social isolation, loss of work or loss of a loved one, a colleague or friend. Forbes reported in 2021 that even as we began to “resume normal activities, socialize, and generally heal from the trauma … The pandemic showed us the psychological fallout of structures falling away.”
As reported this month by health care institution the Florida House Experience: “The aftermath of events such as hurricanes can leave many feeling as though life as they know it is permanently gone. Any recovered sense of normalcy or control feels as though it could be taken away in an instant, resulting in a significant psychological impact on those who’ve experienced a natural disaster.”
Writes Forbes’ Alice G. Walton in May 2021: “Even as we see a light at the end of the tunnel … a new study finds that mental health issues haven’t yet followed suit. They may in the coming months, as we regain jobs, resume normal activities, socialize, and generally heal from the trauma. The real issue may be how to harness what we’ve learned about mental health during the pandemic and design structures and policies that support it in a larger way moving forward,” she writes in summary of a study by Harvard, Northeastern, Northwestern and Rutgers Universities.
“Living through traumatic events that have the potential to be life-threatening, or have actually been deadly to others, can have a significant impact on someone’s mental health. They can bring on a range of stressors that impact a person’s sense of security … These issues may resolve on their own after a few days or weeks as life returns to normal, but for some people, they persist for years,” notes the Florida House Experience report.
Now comes an encouraging report from the American Psychiatric Association that says that, even though more adults in the U.S. expect to be more stressed in 2023 than at this time last year, “they also say they’re more willing to take steps to tackle that stress.”
“The take-home message is really a very positive one, which is that more Americans are willing to talk about their mental health,” says the APA’s president, Dr. Rebecca Brendel. The APA’s report is based on a poll surveying more than 2,200 U.S. adults on Dec. 7 and 8.
Commenting on the report, Lindsey McKernan, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, believes that people “appear to be experiencing a ‘collective fatigue’ after more than two years of the Covid pandemic. The coronavirus, geopolitical uncertainty and ongoing fears about a recession have made people more stressed,” she says.
McKernan says that among the ways people can take care of their mental health includes paying attention to signs of stress. “Connecting with close family members or other loved ones is also important,” she adds. Social connectedness for those who are impacted in the aftermath of a natural disaster is also especially important. Social connections can boost a person’s resilience in the face of such hard times. “Resilience factors are things that help you ‘bounce back’ after a traumatic event,” says the National Center for PTSD.
According to a 2019 Harvard Health report, when a massive earthquake struck off the coast of eastern Japan in 2011, triggering a devastating tsunami wave leading to one of the worst disasters in recent history, a social epidemiologist’s experiment comparing how elderly people fared both before and after the disaster came up with some surprising results.
“They also found that the most important factor in disaster resilience was not material resources such as medical supplies, food, or shelter — it was social capital, things such as interpersonal relationships, a shared sense of identity, shared norms and values, trust, cooperation, and reciprocity,” says the report.
According to The New York Times, recent research suggests that one of the most powerful ways to support someone is also the simplest. Just start a conversation.
Says Razia Sahi, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies how social interactions influence people’s emotions, the words we use to comfort others matter. “Words play a powerful role in shaping people’s emotions because humans are such a social species,” she notes.
“What matters most is not that you say the right thing, but that you are present and trying to help,” says Jamil Zaki, a social psychologist at Stanford University. “We can make a difference to other people with relatively little effort. Sometimes just being there is all that you need to do.”