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How You React To Tragedies - 11/6/2008

Last week, when I went to the health club, almost everyone was gathered around the TV, listening to the President stating we shouldn’t panic over the economic crisis.  When he finished, numerous individuals  gave their opinions of what is happening.  Most expressed fear of the future, and worry about finances, the war in Iraq and the effects of Hurricane Ike.  They also expressed concern about the government’s ability to deal with all these problems.  One man had it figured  out - the stock market crisis, he explained, has nothing to do with economics.  The reason the market went down was because Wall Street wanted to create panic in order to garner votes for Obama.  “After all”, he added, “aren’t there people who spend billions of dollars making movies that no one goes to, about the environment and the status of health care?”  Another stated, “I have no faith in politicians.  They’re all liars and crooks.  I’m interested in only one thing - that the “liar” who gets in does something decent.”  

And so it went.  It’s kind of wonderful that we live in a country where you can say such things and not be  locked up for your opinions.   But, I need to add that they aren’t the only ones experiencing concerns.  Everyone appears worried.  Each negative event seems to build on another exponentially, to increase anxiety and fear and to create despair.  

I don’t know whose fault it is, the democrats, the republicans, or all congressmen who have operated in the interest of self, as opposed to the country.  I don’t know if the drop in the stock market is the result of manipulation to cause someone to be elected.  But I know one thing for sure.  My patients,  friends and people I come across all seem mildly depressed.  Their frustration tolerance is severely decreased.  Little things cause them to blow up, or to fall apart.  Their sleep is affected; some sleeping longer, others sleeping fitfully.  In most cases, the reaction is mild, but it does affect functioning.  It depletes the wherewithal to think clearly or to face problems head on.  The majority of them feel overwhelmed.  Little things cause them to feel paralyzed and helpless.  

I suspect that many of you share these symptoms.  For some individuals, the solution is not to think about them, to try to engage in other activities, or to deny reality and avoid facing a future you perceive as filled with doom.  Well, that’s not the way to deal with them.  I’d have you stare them right in the face, yell, hit your pillow, take to your bed, cry, or work extra hard, but don’t do it to the extreme.  The best insight to how upset you are is how excessively you respond.  Conversely, if you experience a catastrophe and you don’t respond, that’s equally as diagnostic as overreacting.  

Now, let me reassure you, what is happening in our world is real.  The world is askew.  Our country has many problems.  The political scene is chaotic. The stock market decline has undermined every investor’s confidence and the effects of  Hurricane Ike significantly added to the emotional stress of every Houston inhabitant.  So, you’re not crazy.  You’re entitled to react, but not to excess.  

Diagnostically,  many of you are experiencing a mild form of post-traumatic stress disorder.  Consequently, some of you are attempting to avoid thoughts, feelings, or conversations about your trauma.  Others are drowning yourselves in them.  Many of you feel lethargic and express a diminished interest in social activities.  I can’t count how many people I’m seeing who also feel emotionally detached and estranged from others.  Some are so  involved in your own well-being and so preoccupied by  feelings of insecurity that your ability to love is severely diminished.  The reason is, they feel they have nothing to give.   Too many of you are easily irritated and quick to respond angrily.  Still others are seriously concerned about whether you’ll have a job, be able to sustain a normal life, or ever be able to retire.  All of these symptoms are going to be there for a while.  You’re going to experience emotional distress and impairment in social, occupational and other important areas of functioning.  They’re all consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder.  But, you are not crazy.  These problems are real, and you have a right to respond.  Please note, however, you can’t hold onto those behaviors forever.  

Recognize that, if you go to parts of Hawaii after there have been volcanic eruptions and lava flow, you will see little green sprouts, small trees, even flowers starting to grow.  If you’ve lived in the Houston community long enough, you’ll recall previous hurricanes that tore up much of Galveston.  Beaches and dunes were gone and houses were destroyed.  But ten years later, memory and evidence of the event were long past.  Think about it this way.  If you’ve lived life at all, you’ve experienced disappointments, catastrophes, sadness and losses that initially seemed overwhelming and impossible to overcome.  But, over time, you almost forget them.  Similarly, the history of the stock market has shown that we live in cycles and we have to expect it.  Don’t  deny it,  run away from it, or react excessively to it.  You see, you have a choice to either cling to the despair or know that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.  Please, choose to be thankful for what you have;  for your health, the people who love and support you, and for whatever goodness you can make yourself see in your world.  Even if you look out and everything is empty, i.e., you have no friends or loved ones to lean on, you can choose to reach out and find someone, join an organization, get into a support group, try to help others, or ask for their help.  Free yourself to do things that will make your life more meaningful, more productive and, in the long run, more enjoyable.  

There you have it.  The thoughts are easier than the actions and, despite my words, your feelings will continue to vacillate.  But, they’ll get better over time, because time is a wonderful medicine.  I promise that, before you know it, you’ll be able to open your heart, your mind and your arms to the world you’re in and give thanks for what you have, as opposed to what you’ve lost, or what you now think you’re going to lose in the future.

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