Talk therapy is important. But, as renowned traumatologist Peter Fonagy points out, it cannot be the only solution to resolving mass attacks or natural disaster events. Fonagy, along with increasingly more experts who study the long term effects of disaster on communities, advocates for cultivating "good relationships" within communities as a form of antibody against potential traumatic impacts from disaster. "If you have good relationships they actually help you assimilate that experience."
What is the essence or character of the kind of "good relationships" that help you assimilate or metabolize adversity? Mainly, reliable care, expressed through language, physical touch, food, space, and ritual. The idiosyncratic displays of these expressions may change from community to community, infused by cultural norms. What determines whether the way they are expressed is "right," is whether the survivor perceives any of these expressions as caring. Which means, the caregiver also must continually observe and adapt as needed.
Who are the caregivers in a community? The ones providing "good relationships" to survivors? They may be family, teachers, neighbors, faith leaders, sport coaches, friends, coworkers, and fellow survivors. Each in their own way, without carrying the full burden of response solely on their own shoulders, contribute to a village of care for survivors.
They help provide the stepping stones known to foster healing and restoration:
Talk therapy is only one, of many, important practices that communities can offer survivors across the long-term trajectory of healing after disaster. Unfortunately, too many communities today are relying on talk therapy as the only way to solve mental health challenges in their community. They miss the caring resources which may exist right in their midst. We can all do more to remind ourselves and those around us of how healing is not only, and cannot only be, a professional task. Rather, it is a communal task, in which talk therapy is one of many proven resources for healing.
What are some of the ways your community is resolving disaster, beyond only talk therapy? Share in the comments below.
On November 30th, 2018 a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck Anchorage, Alaska. I happened to be at work that morning, on the 17th floor of a building built to withstand such an event. Alaska is home to the largest earthquake ever to hit North America. In 1964, a staggering 9.2 quake shook the ground for over five minutes, causing tragic loss of life and changing the state forever. From that time forward, building codes were put in place so structures could withstand the jolts and waves of an earthquake. My building was built on rollers, allowing it to move, twist, sway and still stand. It stood and I was safe. My life was spared. But it moved, twisted and swayed for well over a minute. While this does not sound like much time, when that minute starts with a jolt of such power that it almost knocks you down, and then the next 70-90 seconds are filled with the creaking, grinding and banging noises of an entire building being wrenched around by wave and after wave of seismic forces that can’t be seen, but most certainly can be felt and heard, that time slows down.
PHOTO: THE WEATHER CHANNEL
I could not have predicted how I experienced those moments. As an Alaskan, I had sat through safety trainings on earthquake readiness, but those trainings only prepare you for what to do, not for how you will feel and how you will act.
My feelings were terror and my actions were prayers yelled aloud, repeated over and over. Then the building stilled, alarms blared, lights flashed and I joined the hundreds of people racing down stairs to safety. The following days, weeks and months were spent communally enduring aftershock after aftershock, both of seismic waves, and emotions. And just as the aftershocks varied in magnitude and intensity, so did the feelings and experiences of everyone I knew.
To be sure, there were many shared emotions. The first days were spent having numerous conversations expressing incredible gratitude that there was no loss of life! We praised building codes and solid infrastructure, while often reflecting on tragic opposite events around the globe. We shared over and over again the stories of where we were and what we did when the quake struck. We shared nervous laughter and more vulnerable tears. We shared how we first got in touch with our children and other loved ones. We expressed our fear and exasperation at the unpredictable relentless aftershocks. We shared how our behaviors had changed. Some of us were sleeping all together in one room, or moving to the basement to feel safer. We were checking in on neighbors we didn’t know. We were having spontaneous conversations with strangers in the grocery store aisle, telling our stores and listening to others. We shared. And we shared. And we shared.
I had sat through safety trainings on earthquake readiness, but those trainings only prepare you for what to do, not for how you will feel and how you will act.
And by sharing, we began to heal.
Shared trauma can bring a community together. It has a way of rearranging society, pushing essential elements of survival to the forefront. In much worse tragedies, those elements are very basic. They are food, water, power, medical care…etc.
In Alaska, we were lucky and we knew that, but we also needed to heal. And that healing looked different for each and every person, and is ongoing for many. For those that had experienced the 1964 quake, their terror was much greater. Many were surprised by the intensity of their reactions, believing that they had long healed from this early childhood trauma, only to have numerous triggered memories and emotions. Many expressed frustration that they were not able to “get over” this event. This “emotional self judging” was pervasive, with people of all ages and experiences questioning how they were feeling.
Honest sharing is what helped. Many were comforted by the words of our Governor and Mayor, both of whom quickly and publically spoke to their own feelings of fear for themselves and their families. Another public official, interviewed on the news the night of the quake stated, “We have all gone through a terrifying thing which might cause or trigger mental health issues. This is o.k. It is to be expected. Please don’t be afraid to ask for help. Even though it appears damage was not catastrophic, this was no small thing.”
Sharing these words with an anxious public was important. It was validating and encouraging. It allowed people to keep sharing honestly and to seek further help if needed. And this encouragement needed to be ongoing, and continues today. Alaskans experienced several months of strong aftershocks, and it was incredibly helpful to have officials, mental health professionals, and friends continue to name how difficult this was for all of us. Being able to share that trauma, without fear of someone expressing the need to “get over it,” was empowering. When those negative sentiments were unfortunately shared, often through social media, the public outcry was swift. Many more voices were validating the difficulty of what we were experiencing, and encouraging people to keep sharing.
Communities care for one another by sharing. Communities experiencing trauma may need to share more. This sharing might be in the form of basic needs, and incredible generosity is often seen during times of much greater tragedy. However, generous sharing can also be the validation of a vast range of emotions and making available safe spaces to process and recover. These safe spaces can be formal or informal. Therapists and trauma counselors reported high numbers of individuals and families reaching out for help. School counselors and teachers took ample time in classrooms, encouraging children to tell their stories and process their fears. Experts wrote articles in the paper with advice on how to manage anxiety, and local activity centers and museums offered free admission to encourage play and community togetherness.
That healing looked different for each and every person, and is ongoing for many.
Informal sharing was also quite helpful, and continues to be so. Churches and faith leaders hosted conversations and meals, checked on homebound members and offered continuous availability to listen. And through the months of continued shaking, friends, family and acquaintances reached out in person, through calls or texts, or through social media to offer ongoing support. Many Alaskans are transplants from other states, and it was of great comfort to continue to hear from others in the “lower 48” that our ongoing stress was seen and not forgotten. Solidarity and empathy were offered and received, easing some of the burden.
While traumatic events will always be unique, needing specific response, it is in sharing that we heal. We need to keep caring for each other...in Alaska, in Puerto Rico, in Haiti...and beyond. Find your way to help. Visible suffering may help guide you to know how and what to share in more vulnerable places, but remember to also ask about what is not seen. We are in this together.
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