Making Sense of the Storm

Making Sense of the Storm

Grace Rao, LMSW

Making Sense of the Storm

Making Sense of the Storm

Many of us experienced a once-in-a-generation snow and ice storm last week.

Like a slow moving train derailment, the storm caused a domino effect of consequences. Some of you may have experienced power loss, freezing pipes, water outages, house fires, hospital evacuations, and food insecurity. If you’re reading this, chances are you managed to get through all of these things while also holding delicate needs: pregnancy, postpartum and newborn care, canceled fertility appointments, pregnancy loss.

We’re still in the tail end of the storm, faced with the aftermath of flooded homes, empty grocery shelves, and the physical and emotional exhaustion of a week of survival mode.

As we face a confusingly normal week of 70s and sun, it is important to pause, to make sense of our experience, and to move through the stress we have held in our bodies. Doing so can safeguard your brain and nervous system, immune system, and open the door to post traumatic growth and resilience.

Moving Through Chronic Stress to Safety and Connection

Our body and nervous system are designed to manage threats and keep us safe. In fact our brain checks our internal and external environment 4 times per second for threat. If identified, a defense response is mobilized through our sympathetic nervous system along the lines of flock-flight-fight-freeze-collapse.

Once the strategy results in safety, the parasympathetic nervous system engages to calm and eventually restore connection.

For example: Walking out of my house with a friend I see a dog in the driveway coming towards me (THREAT) . I look at my friend’s face and see they’re afraid (FLOCK). We run inside and close the door (FLIGHT). I shake and breath heavily(SNS energy). After a minute I hug my friend and our breath slows(PSNS). We talk about it and later we tell another friend (SAFETY/CONNECTION).  

This is the type of threat our bodies’ machinery is designed to defend against and this is what it looks like to start, move through, and end a stress response.

Last week’s storm was not this type of stressor. Last week’s storm can best be understood as an inescapable stressor, in which our brains constantly picked up on new threats and our defense strategies could not provide total escape.

The physiological danger of inescapable stressors is that they can leave us stuck in a state of defense, with an excess of stress hormones in our system.  You may know this as headaches, restlessness, irritability, brain fog, tearfulness, overwhelm, distraction, and exhaustion.

If you find yourself here, these symptoms may actually be your body’s invitation to finish moving through the stress response and safely reconnect with yourself and others.

Here are some considerations to help you move through:

  • Drink lots of water (I know- it’s cringey given the water outage). But this really helps flush out excess stress hormones and passively sends signals of safety to your brain. If you were being chased you wouldn’t stop and take a long drink, right?
  • Take deep and SLOW breaths with an elongated exhale. Breathe in 3 seconds through your nose and out 5 seconds. A longer exhale engages the calming parasympathetic nervous system.  
  • Give a long hug. We never actually outgrow the stress reducing benefits of skin to skin!  
  • Gentle movement. The shaking after being chased by a dog is intentional; it offloads that extra energy that was crucial moments ago, but is now no longer needed.    
  • Journal about your experience. Journaling will help slow down any racing thoughts since your hand can only move so fast. Also, putting an emotional (right brain) experience into language and a coherent narrative (left brain), is shown to decrease emotional reactivity and improve immune response, amongst other benefits. See James Pennebaker’s research on expressive writing!
  • Get reflective. Think about your own defense response. Can you identify a time you engaged the flock response and intuitively checked in with friends, family, the news? What about a time you engaged the fight response and spent hours working to overcome the threat and care for your family? Bonus points if you journal this out.  
  • If possible, donate to an aid fund or volunteer. Engaging the community, contributing to recovery, and experiencing the feeling of interdependence has been shown to buffer the impact of trauma and stress, even in disaster and war.
  • Once some time has passed, consider creating a plan for future emergencies. We can’t plan for everything, but we can signal to our brain that we are prepared within reasonable limits for future incidents.

Take care, friends, and don’t suffer alone. The providers at RPC are available for therapy appointments to support your process of moving through the events of last week.