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Sonoma County Gazette

Community Resilience in the
Face of Natural Disasters

Feb 28, 2018
by Gary Pace M.D.


In an instant back in October, the fires changed our community. For many people, there was terrible trauma—emotional, physical, and financial; for others, while less, it was still palpable. What do we know about how individuals and communities successfully manage massive traumas from natural disasters?

It appears that negative outcomes are not inevitable and can be shifted with good preparation, good tactics during the event, and a focus by leaders on emerging from the event as a stronger community overall.

Research about brain chemistry can help to understand better how to deal with the immediate trauma. The amygdala in the “reptilian” part of the brain is the fear and alarm center. It gets triggered easily in intense situations. When this happens, we get into a hyper-excited fight or flight response, and blood-flow gets redirected from the pre-frontal cortex, where the executive functions live. Essentially in tight situations, we have a wired-in response where we feel very panicky, and we can’t think very well.

There are well-developed ways for individuals to manage acute and chronic trauma.

These can be learned by anyone, and are helpful to have practiced before the frightening events. Check out: (there is a beer app with the same name—not that one!).

Some important points about dealing with acute trauma:

1) The person is not able to talk themself out of the feelings. Retelling the story can often make it worse.

2) A useful technique focuses on bringing attention to the body. Help the person learn to discriminate between sensations of distress and relaxation, then encourage their attention to shift to parts of body or to situations where they feel better. Sometimes it involves finding the “happy place” in their mind. “Do you remember when help arrived?

3) Gain more access to pre-frontal cortex. As relaxation occurs, people are more able to engage with the problem-solving part of the brain.

We can also look at how things unfold on a community level after a disaster. Research has identified these stages:

1) Pre-disaster—warning stage, preparing.

2) Heroic phase—after the impact when everyone is mobilized and incredible things are happening, emergency responders are present.

3) Community cohesion. Honeymoon period where it feels like everyone is in it together. Up to 6 months.

4) Disillusionment. Months to years. Lots of distress. The people that suffered the most are left dealing with terrible issues, while the rest of the community seems to move on.

5) Recovery. Some recover, others stay in dysregulation. Trigger events and anniversary reactions can cause regression. Some people never bounce back, while many other people return to their pre-crisis level of functioning. Some are able to use the trauma as a transformational catalyst that leads to an increased sense of wellbeing.

Some findings:

1) 20-50% of people impacted by extreme weather events experience severe anxiety, depression, or PTSD, sometimes which can last for years.

2) Social inequities amplify the traumas, with the impacts being felt hardest in vulnerable communities.

3 Social support is the biggest protector from negative outcomes..

Ultimately, an individual and a community will end up with a narrative that casts it either as a victim or frames some transformative potential.

Final Suggestions:

1) Honestly appraise what is going on. The suffering will actually increase when the extent of the trauma is denied.

2) People need to be encouraged to seek refuge and support, and situations need to be created where this can be found easily. Learn grounding techniques to help soothe.

3) As a later part of the recovery, a forum to help people ask questions about meaning is useful. People need to be able to ponder: “What can i learn from this?“ This is different from blaming others, but will tend to lead people to things such as, “When it happened, I realized my possessions weren’t nearly as important as my friends and family.”

4) In the communities where people actually recovered to a better state than before the event, the narrative of the community had been rewritten. A new meaning had emerged. “We are a resilient neighborhood where we take care of each other. Since the disaster, I now regularly go visit some of the elders to make sure they are okay.”

Wellness Corner by Dr. Gary Pace M.D.


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