We’re now more than a month after two earthquakes in Mexico, Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria. But now wild fires in California have destroyed thousands of homes and businesses. This tragedy and the long, slow recovery in places like Puerto Rico, the Caribbean islands, East Texas and Florida has produced a growing list of people coping with disaster. Losing your home, emotionally significant keepsakes and possessions can be very hard to bear. Of course, those who feel overwhelmed with anxiety, depression or suicidal thoughts should seek professional help without delay. What can help other good people in coping with disasters and serious loss?
Concentration camp survivor, neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote:
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way… When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.
In “Help in Coping with Disasters – Part One” we discussed the vital need to remain positive and optimistic to get through tough times. We saw how research revealed that optimism can actually help you recover and spot opportunities that pessimists miss. We considered a few tools that can help you remain upbeat despite serious loss. Are there other tools that can help?
Kick-starting an optimistic mood
There’s no question. After you’ve just suffered a major setback of any kind you hardly feel positive and optimistic about the future. But as we discussed in Part One, research has repeatedly shown that an optimistic outlook is an invaluable asset to help you snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. As we all saw last February at the Super Bowl, the Patriots were 25 points down to an outstanding Atlanta Falcons team that was beating them in virtually every phase of the game. Despite the fact than no NFL team had ever come back from a 10 point deficit, New England did what they expected to do. They found a way to win.
In Part One we discussed ways research shows you can train your brain to think optimistically by requiring yourself to find and write down 3-5 good things in your life every day. We also saw how smiling regardless of the situation is a proven strategy to lift your mood. But there are more tools at your disposal.
Celebrate every victory
Another key tactic that can help you keep optimistically moving forward is to celebrate everything victory, big or small. I don’t mean celebrating by overeating or with substance abuse. That may well make matters worse. Instead, use any excuse to smile, punch the air like a winning athlete or, if the neighbors aren’t watching, even raise your arms above your head in a gesture of triumph. Research finds it can significantly improve your mood. As Rachel Nuwer reported in The Huffington Post:
“When we make a gesture and the movements are related to a specific emotion, it can elicit or create that emotion in us,” says Tal Shafir, Ph.D., a specialist in dance movement therapy and neuroscience at the University of Haifa in Israel and lead author of the 2013 paper in the journal Brain and Cognition.
Thus, celebrating even small victories with smiles and happy , triumphant gestures (perhaps more discreet than pictured here) can help you feel happy and triumphant. It may seem unrealistic to celebrate recovering a cherished photo when your house lies in ruins. But when you’re trying to rebuild your home and your life after a disaster, being realistic is not your goal. Having the mental energy to keep moving forward is.
Former American Psychological Association President Dr. Martin Seligman is credited as a pioneer of both Cognitive Therapy and Positive Psychology. In his classic, Learned Optimism, Seligman cites study after study showing that pessimists are far more realistic that optimists. Yet, as he states, a large volume of research also shows that:
Pessimism is fertile soil in which depression grows, particularly when the environment is hostile…Our thoughts are not merely reactions to events: they change what ensues.
Those who believe that despite awful setbacks they are ultimately going to win often do. Research at MetLife tested agents’ optimism level. The most optimistic agents outsold the most pessimistic by 88%. Like selling life insurance, recovering well from a disaster requires a lot of hard work. That requires considerable mental energy. An optimistic, “I’m going to keep going ‘till I win” attitude can make a big difference. Do everything you can to cultivate and support it in yourselves and your family members – even if it means celebrating like a PGA golfer who just sank a 40 foot putt when what you really did was clean the mold off of one living room wall.
Lifting yourself and others
Be sure to give out lots of sincere praise and commendation to your family members, friends and neighbors as they face their losses. Research outlined in the University of California at Berkeley article, “Happiness for a Lifetime” shows that regularly performing kind acts for others significantly boosts your mood. At the same time, social psychology’s Reciprocity Principle virtually guarantees that those for whom you show appreciation and kindness will repay the favor. That can help everyone feel better and draw you closer, a key factor in happiness.
Putting your loss in a useful perspective
Losing your home, your job, your car, family keepsakes and prized possessions are clearly substantial losses. I know – I’ve been through it. It’s natural to feel that you’ve lost virtually everything. But while many of your possessions may be gone, dwelling on your losses or blaming yourself will hurt rather than help you.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who helped take his country from the brink of defeat to the Nazis to victory in WW II, has been credited with this classic saying:
If you’re going through hell – keep going!
Bringing your family back from a natural disaster means a lot of hard work. Anything you can do to strengthen yourself and your loved ones at this time can make a big difference in the final outcome. One useful tool is changing how you view your losses.
It’s vital to recognize that despite the media’s materialistic message, if you’ve still got your family and friends, you’ve retained what can make you happiest in life. Social psychologist Dr. David Meyers reports on research results:
When asked, “What is necessary for your happiness?” or “What is it that makes your life more meaningful?” most people mention – before anything else – satisfying close relationships with family, friends or romantic partners.
In contrast, studies show that once basic needs are cared for, money can’t buy happiness. Billionaire Google co-founder Sergey Brin observed:
You always hear the phrase, money doesn’t buy you happiness. But I always in the back of my mind figured a lot of money will buy you a little bit of happiness. But it’s not really true.
Losing your home and possessions is a serious loss. But if you still have your loved ones and friends, you still have what can really make you happy. And while in today’s society having things brings a measure of respect, so does the character you show in refusing to let misfortune ruin your life.
There’s no sugar-coating the losses you and your family can suffer in a major disaster like a fire, flood or windstorm. But research and real life show again and again that an optimistic viewpoint, good direction and hard work can help your family recover.
If you’ve suffered serious loss, the tools mentioned in Help in Coping with Disasters – Parts One and Two won’t solve all your problems. But they can help you and your family take the steps needed to improve your situation. It is certainly possible to be happy and successful even when you’ve lost a lot. If you have, why not try the tools mentioned in these articles and see if they help you as much as they’ve helped others in recovering from disaster.
Finally, research and real-life experience show the way you think about your loss and yourself can make an enormous difference in how you feel.
And how you and your family feel can have a big impact on your recovery from disaster. In Part 3, we’ll discuss ways to adjust your viewpoint so it builds you up when circumstances are tearing you down.