In August Hurricane Harvey dropped more than 4 feet of rain on Southeast Texas and nearby Louisiana. Its costs could reach $180 billion or more. Less than a week later Hurricane Irma grew into the strongest Atlantic hurricane in recorded history. It caused deaths and the greatest power outage in the modern era. Millions were forced to evacuate. Others found their houses flooded with dirty water. Many lost their homes and have no flood insurance. Is coping with natural disasters like these realistic, or even possible? Are there tools to help victims of catastrophic natural disasters like these get on with their lives?
Naturally, a person who is very anxious, seriously depressed or contemplating suicide should seek professional help immediately. But there are helpful tools to assist other disaster victims to get past the trauma of losing their homes and possessions.
An experienced survivor
I feel qualified to write on this subject, because the tools I will highlight have certainly helped me survive a number of personal disasters and losses of family members. For me, these started early in life. My parents, who both recently died, divorced when I was just 5 years old. I never had a real relationship with my father. I was terrified of him until he started mellowing when I was 10. After my parents divorced, my mother fell into despair. Like too many depressed people, she made the situation worse by self-medicating – with vodka.
When I was 10, a female relative living in our household decided the whole family would be better off dead. Pouring lighter fluid around our home late one night, she lit our place on fire while we slept. My brother and I only survived by jumping out our bedroom window into a neighbor’s waiting arms. Fortunately, the painful burns I sustained on my lower leg were not life-threatening. We lost virtually everything we owned in that fire.
My mother was never the same afterward. And while she did good work during the day, she “self-medicated” at home almost every night. As a school kid, I had to clean the house, do the laundry and hold off bill collectors.
I got past that crisis. Years later, I enjoyed considerable success at work. But serious industry shrinkage forced my employer of 28 years to radically downsize. Since my wife was battling a chronic illness and couldn’t work, the income on which we depended was suddenly gone.
I was recruited to work at a nationwide facial plastic surgery practice, but it suddenly went bankrupt, putting some 700 employees, including me, out of work – again. At nearly 60, it soon became clear that to support my family I would have to start my own business – no easy task!
Like victims of the 2017 hurricane season, I know what it’s like to lose all your possessions, move away from your friends, effectively lose important family members and suffer repeated financial loss. Yet, research-proven strategies I learned and help I received assisted me in getting through it. If you’ve suffered serious losses, these strategies could help you as well.
An optimistic outlook – a vital asset
When facing a disaster like the loss of your home and possessions, an optimistic attitude is an invaluable asset. “How on earth can I be optimistic when I’ve just lost everything?” you might wonder. There are actually several ways. First, while none of us want to be in the position to need them, in the US, Europe and some other countries there are provisions to help disaster victims. They won’t solve your problems, but in most cases they’ll keep you alive until things improve. In my case, when my mother, brother and I lost everything in the fire we were taken in by my grandparents. They were living on Social Security, so we just barely scraped by. But scrape by we did. You can, too.
The second reason to adopt an optimistic attitude is that it will help you spot opportunities that pessimists miss. Shawn Achor taught in Harvard University’s popular “Happiness Course” that research reveals that people who view themselves as “lucky” have a real advantage over people who view themselves as “unlucky.” He stated in The Happiness Advantage:
[Researcher Richard] Wiseman asked volunteers to read through a newspaper and count how many photos were in it. The people who claimed to be lucky took mere seconds to accomplish this task, while the unlucky ones took an average of two minutes. Why? Well, on the second page of the newspaper a very large message read: “Stop counting, there are 43 photos in this newspaper.” The answer, in short, was as plain as day, but the unlucky people were far more likely to miss it, while the lucky people tended to see it. As an added bonus, halfway through the newspaper was another message that read, “Stop counting, tell the experimenter you have seen this and win $250.”
As this and other studies show, an optimistic attitude can help you spot opportunities to help you and your family pull yourselves out of the hole where being in the path of a natural disaster has put you. It can also help you make more of the available opportunities. Achor further relates:
Studies have shown that optimists set more goals (and more difficult goals) than pessimists, and put more effort into attaining those goals, stay more engaged in the face of difficulty, and rise above obstacles more easily.
How can you become more optimistic in the face of disaster?
Training your brain to find a way to win
Repeated social psychology studies have uncovered the power of what has been called the “self-fulfilling prophecy.” People often live up to their own or others’ expectations.
One of the best examples of how expecting to succeed can help in overcoming adversity comes from professional sports. Prior to Super Bowl LI’s matchup between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons, no team in history had overcome a 10 point halftime deficit to win. With his team down 21-3 to Atlanta at halftime, New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman predicted the Patriots would win. Wearing a mic for NFL Films, Edelman was heard telling quarterback Tom Brady, “Let’s go, Baby…Going to be a hell of a story.”
Edelman’s self-fulfilling prophecy proved true. Interestingly, though down by 25 points midway through the 3rd quarter, it was the optimistic Edelman who made one of the greatest catches in Super Bowl history. It kept a drive alive and helped his team score 31 unanswered points to win in the overtime period of what many call the greatest Super Bowl of all time.
Like some people, Julian Edelman may have been born an optimist. But researchers like eminent psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman have proven that optimism can be learned. One simple procedure can help you feel better right away while training your brain to be more optimistic despite your circumstances.
Two simple procedures can produce a strong and immediate effect
The first thing to do when you’re facing disaster is to smile. You may feel anything but cheerful. But repeated research shows that the physical act of smiling can improve your mood. Researchers in Germany found that people required to involuntarily smile by holding a butter knife in their teeth reported a lift in mood. Those forced into a frown by holding a spoon in their lips reported feeling less happy than they had previously.
As brought out in “How to Weather the Storm with a Smile” on this site, respected researcher Dr. Robert Zajonc summed up the results of a number of studies:
I’m not saying that all moods are due to changes in the muscles of the face, only that facial action leads to changes in mood.
The second procedure was outlined by Harvard instructor Achor, who wrote:
Training your brain to notice more opportunities takes practice focusing on the positive. The best way to kick-start this is to start making a daily list of the good things in…your life. It may sound hokey, or ridiculously simple – and indeed, the activity itself is simple – but over a decade of empirical studies has proven the profound effect it has on the way our brains are wired.
Long before research proved it, wise King Solomon stated what research later confirmed: What we focus on strongly affects our attitude. Around 1,000 BCE Solomon wrote:
“All the days of the afflicted one are bad, but the one with a cheerful heart has a continual feast.”
If you’re coping with a devastating loss, training your mind to focus on positive things – like the assets you still have and the opportunities for improvement – will surely help you get through this challenging time.
Naturally, if you’ve suffered the loss of your loved ones, find yourself really depressed or seriously contemplating hurting yourself, you should seek professional help right away. Those who are medically trained to assist are often available after a major disaster.
But if your losses are primarily financial or to your personal property, training your mind to optimistically spot opportunities and learning to expect a hard-won victory can make a real difference. What other tools can help you succeed despite serious adversity? We’ll consider those in Part Two of this series.