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Strategies for coping with disaster

Many may never completely recover from Hurricane Sandy's psychological scars

Our hearts and prayers go out to all those who have been impacted by Hurricane Sandy.

In many areas, it may be years before things return to normal. What steps can you take to recuperate from Sandy — or from any other difficult event such as a death or illness that rips your life apart?

In February, I wrotea column entitled, "When disaster strikes: Have a plan." If you live in a part of the country where Sandy passed you by, read the suggestions in that article and take the time now to prepare for the unexpected event that can turn your entire world upside down.

Sadly, many individuals may never completely recover from the psychological scars an event of this magnitude can create.

After the 1994 Northridge earthquake, it was almost a year before the slightest rumble or shake would not cause me to bolt up awake thinking we were having another aftershock.

Here are some strategies to cope:

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1. Expect emotional reactions

Each individual responds differently to stress. A common response is a sense of disbelief or numbness. This results when your body releases a flood of endorphins to cope with the traumatic event. When this wears off, the grief and despair can be overwhelming. Other emotions you may experience include insomnia, anger, irritability, grief, self-doubt, and fear of being alone. While these reactions may be temporary, they can sometimes last for months and days.

2. Turn down the stress

Your first goal is to do whatever it takes to get to a place where you are as calm and relaxed as possible. Spend time with those you love doing the things that make you feel relaxed and happy. If you’re not exercising, consider doing some activity that releases stress whether it’s pounding on a pillow, swinging at a baseball, or merely taking a walk. Physical activity burns off ACTH, the damaging substance our bodies release when under stress. In addition, yoga, massage, and even acupuncture are great ways to not only reduce your stress, but to increase your well-being as well.

3. Be the calm in the storm

Don’t be surprised when your clients or love ones lose it over something trivial. In psychological terms, this is known as the "kick the cat" syndrome. When we are frustrated and have no way to vent our anger on the source of frustration, many people take it out on the people around them. The key in coping with unjustified outbursts or misdirected anger is to realize it’s not about you. Instead, it is probably displaced fear and/or aggression. Rather than responding in kind, lower your voice, take notes (if appropriate) so the person knows your truly hearing what they are saying, and then repeat what you have written back to them in a quiet, calm voice. Listening and repeating back in a calm voice usually defuses the other person’s anger. 

4. Take small steps

Start by completing whatever small tasks you can get off your plate. Small, seemingly inconsequential things can drain far more energy than you imagine. Set aside part of each day to handle these small items. Completing these tasks will give you a sense of regaining control of your life.

5. It’s OK to cry

Don’t try to bottle up the feelings you are experiencing. It’s better to talk about them and if you tear up, don’t fight it. Crying releases pent up energy and stress.

6. Smile and laugh

Smiling changes your physiological state. When you were crying and one of your parents said, "Smile — you’ll feel better," it really was true. Look for opportunities to smile and laugh, even at some of the most difficult situations. For example, I remember seeing a 200-unit apartment building that had been almost completely demolished by the 1994 Northridge ‘quake. Someone had posted a big sign that said, "The fat lady has sung."

7. Express gratitude often

If you have been without power or water for several days, there’s nothing like the day when you can turn your electronics back on and take a hot shower. Also, remember to tell your friends and loved ones how much they mean to you. They’re under stress as well and small expressions of gratitude and love can help each of you cope more effectively.

8. Focus on what you can control

A disaster of this magnitude is a strong reminder of all the things that you cannot control. Rather than focusing on what you can’t do anything about, make choices that support action. For example, rather watching coverage of the disaster, volunteer at your child’s school, give blood, or donate your time to a charitable organization. These are places where your efforts make a difference.

Getting back to normal takes time. To speed up the process, be supportive and take as many opportunities to care for yourself as possible.

Bernice Ross, CEO of RealEstateCoach.com, is a national speaker, trainer and author of the National Association of Realtors’ No. 1 best-seller, "Real Estate Dough: Your Recipe for Real Estate Success." Hear Bernice’s five-minute daily real estate show, just named "new and notable" by iTunes, at www.RealEstateCoachRadio.com. You can contact her at Bernice@RealEstateCoach.com or @BRoss on Twitter.

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