November 05, 2012

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Finding food, staying warm, and coping with power outages are still primary challenges for many who've weathered the worst of Hurricane Sandy. But psychologists warn that the mental effects of dealing with such challenges can be pretty powerful forces in their own right.

Henri Roca, MD, medical director of Greenwich Hospital’s Integrative Medicine Program in Greenwich, Connecticut says it’s about more than just turmoil and uncertainty. The upheaval brought about by a natural disaster can change how you view the world.

“We go through life with a map in our mind of how the world works and how our life works within that world,” Dr. Roca says. “When natural disaster strikes it calls into question or even destroys the validity of that mental map.”

Dr. Roca, a New Orleans native who helped survivors cope with Hurricane Katrina stress before he relocated to Connecticut, notes that symptoms of stress include listlessness, helplessness, and indecisiveness. Feelings of fear and anxiety are also common, as are changes in appetite, sleep, and general mood.

Here, he offers the following tips for holding it together in tough times.

1. Eat healthy. You may be dealing with food shortages and food storage issues, but do your best to eat well. Stay away from sweets and simple carbohydrates, which are likely to feed rather than tame your stress.  Focus on getting enough protein, which Dr. Roca says is needed to make neurotransmitters, the chemicals that help bolster your sense of resilience.

2. Keep Moving. Exercise boosts mood and helps you face challenging situations. If your gym is currently out of commission, lace up your sneakers and go for a walk or run. But if outside conditions are still too dangerous, do some push-ups, sit ups, and jumping jacks at home to elevate your heart rate and burn off some anxiety. (For those with Internet access, consider downloading this awesome tabada workout, which requires no equipment and very little space.)

3. Relax. It’s OK and even desirable to remain busy, but it’s also important to stay calm so your activity doesn't become rushed, frantic, and unfocused. It’s also a good idea to take a break once in a while to listen to music, meditate, pray, or even just sit quietly.

 4. Re-prioritize. Remember, possessions are just things. If you lost items of sentimental value like photos or family mementos, remind yourself that you didn't lose the memories and emotions attached to them. Be grateful for what you have left, Dr. Roca advises, and know that the things you need must take precedence over the things you want, at least for the time being.

5. Don’t isolate yourself. Seek out other people. Talk to neighbors. Visit friends and family. Volunteer to help others if you can and ask for help if you need it. As Dr. Roca points out, people need to pull together during tough times. To the extent that those affected by Sandy can build on this sense of community and get back to normal, it can be an opportunity for people to grow and even develop a sense of accomplishment because of what they've been through.

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