Emotional Health

Fighting Catastrophic Thinking When Catastrophe Strikes

As a psychologist, how do I help people cope in an era where real catastrophe is more likely than it once was? What would I say to the residents of Thousand Oaks, California  who in the space of one week experienced historically devastating wildfires and a mass shooting at a bar?

Residents in California and other western states can no longer rely on the fire department to be able to control wildfires that are as extreme and fast moving as the ones still burning in several parts of the state. Almost 50 people have died so far, a figure expected to rise.

Again, in this situation we can no longer count on the government to protect us. While the fact that environmental factors and climate change are contributing to the escalation of fires and other natural disasters, these facts are also being ignored. Catastrophic events are increasing and our protections against them, such as environmental regulations, are being diminished.

The only way to avoid feeling like a helpless victim is to try to take control of the situation.

Treating anxious patients is much more challenging in such situations, but I try to empower them by using the image of a toolbox. We go over what strategies they can bring with them when they enter an anxiety-provoking situation to give them more sense of control.

For example, someone who is afraid of getting sick in an unfamiliar place can look up the medical facilities in the area to gain a sense of what to do. Making an action plan in advance and understanding safety procedures can help reduce anxiety a give you a sense of control. Many schools have adopted safety plans, lockdown procedures, and even have drills to prepare students and teachers in case of a shooter.

You can gain even more control by playing the long game as well. In addition to an immediate action plan, on a broader scale, take active steps to work toward creating greater protections for your community. If you are worried about shootings, contribute time or money (or both) to promote gun control. Similarly, work for candidates or organizations to fight climate change.

Not only will taking active steps help bring about the protections we need, they will provide some relief from anxiety that results when we feel helpless. Remember, children feel anxious when separated from their parents because they really are helpless without them. But by teaching them how to do things on their own, showing them the tools they need to cope with the world, we gradually allow them to gain an independent sense of safety. The more we have a sense that we can control our environment, the safer we feel.

Progress is possible. In the past election, women overcame a sense of disempowerment by running for office and winning. The #MeToo movement morphed into #Time’sUp, and victimhood is no longer the only option. By taking action, we not only feel better, but we might actually get something done to change things.

 

 

 

 

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