Everyone is different in how they respond to stressful events. Initial reactions may vary from extremely emotional to total denial. The initial surge of adrenaline that comes with the “fight or flight” response may give way to a variety of responses. Among them, wide swings in emotions and mood, feelings of exhaustion and fatigue, and periods of sadness and loss may occur.
Older adults are at an advantage in that they have lived through past stressful events, and can draw on the experience of having survived those to cope with the current situation. It is important to note, however, that feeling “stressed” is still a perfectly normal response.
At Brookdale® Senior Living, the Optimum Life® culture provides tools and resources that anyone can use to navigate through challenges. An important aspect of Optimum Life is learning to cope and to adapt to things that we may not like but are unavoidable. This requires embracing all dimensions of wellness.
Below are some tips to help you cope with the stress of the recent hurricane by focusing on each of the six dimensions or areas of wellness.
In any traumatic situation, the first course of action is to be sure you are and can remain safe. In the aftermath of the event, be sure to keep up good health habits as much as possible. It is important to eat a balanced diet and to get proper sleep. Difficulty sleeping and poor appetite are commonly occurring symptoms in the wake of a stressful event. Regular exercise can help with both, so keeping up a regular exercise routine is very important.
Sometimes physical symptoms such as body aches, headaches, fatigue, dizziness or intestinal upset can occur as a result of traumatic events. Pre-existing medical conditions can get worse or recur as a result of stress. Keeping in close contact with a primary care provider is important during a time like this.
Self-care measures related to the emotional dimension include acknowledging feelings of grief by talking about your feelings to others or keeping a diary. Also helpful is nurturing a positive outlook about the future and looking for the “silver lining” in the situation. Recognize that what you are feeling is most likely normal and it will get better with time.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), feelings of grief, fear and depression are normal after a traumatic event and usually last around three months. If symptoms are severe, worsen or last longer than three months, the person may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD is an intense physical and emotional response to thoughts and reminders of the event that last for many weeks or months after the traumatic event. The symptoms of PTSD fall into three broad types: re-living, avoidance and increased arousal.
- Symptoms of re-living include flashbacks, nightmares, and extreme emotional and physical reactions to reminders of the event. Emotional reactions can include feeling guilty, extreme fear of harm, and numbing of emotions. Physical reactions can include uncontrollable shaking, chills or heart palpitations, and tension headaches.
- Symptoms of avoidance include staying away from activities, places, thoughts, or feelings related to the trauma or feeling detached or estranged from others.
- Symptoms of increased arousal include being overly alert or easily startled, difficulty sleeping, irritability or outbursts of anger, and lack of concentration.
Other symptoms linked with PTSD include: panic attacks, depression, suicidal thoughts and feelings, drug abuse, feelings of being estranged and isolated, and not being able to complete daily tasks. If you think you are experiencing PTSD symptoms, contact your healthcare professional.
Many people find it helpful to give back to others during a stressful time. Sharing the common experience with others can bring strength and a feeling of belonging. It can be helpful to get away from thinking about oneself and to contribute to the common good. If you are able, volunteer to assist with relief efforts either through monetary giving, donation of needed items, or working at a relief center or shelter.
Experts agree that during times of trauma, being around friends and family is extremely important. Social contact can bring relief from feelings of fear and isolation. Reach out to others, and take the time to resolve conflicts so they don’t compound stress. Remain involved with others in leisure and recreational activities.
During a traumatic time, it is important to keep in mind that we do not have control over every situation or event in our lives. A major trauma can lead to questions related to beliefs and the “big” questions of life. Take the time to contemplate and affirm your beliefs. Keep up regular spiritual practices to help find peace, comfort, and hope.
Remain informed about the situation in order to do what needs to be done. Be mindful however about spending too much time watching news coverage as this can reignite feelings of anxiety. Put the situation in perspective by reviewing past stressful times and how you successfully navigated through them. Use the power of your mind to divert your attention to other activities like reading, puzzles and music.
Caregivers of older adults should be especially vigilant in their observations in order to identify areas of concern and intervene early. Visit older relatives frequently in the wake of a stressful event to monitor how they are doing. Watch for signs of difficulty which may include:
- Excessive alcohol or drug use
- Inability to get out of a sad or depressed state
- Obsessively watching news coverage of the events
- Poor nutrition (not eating or eating unhealthy foods)
- Not sleeping well
- A worsening of a chronic health condition
- New health complaints
Professional attention may be needed if any of the above warning signs continue for a prolonged period – more than a week or so, less if the symptoms are serious.