‘Why is this happening to me?’, ‘Am I going to lose my mind?’, ‘How will I continue to raise my child?’

‘Can I make it through this fear?’, ‘Will I ever be calm again?’, ‘How long will this go on?’

Sounds familiar? Probably very familiar to all of us these days.

These are the words we keep telling ourselves, telling others, we hear it being said on TV, in the news, we hear it in the staircases, on WhatsApp, in social networks, we tell it in solitude of meeting ourselves in front of the mirror. Yes, we probbably are in crisis.

When we are under stress, we recognize it through our emotional reactions (sadness, fear, anger, mood swings), physical reactions (chest pain, back pain, headache, tiredness), thought reactions (muse, absence, forgetfullness) and within our behavior (withdrawal, agressive reactions, forgetfullness, inattention at work…). Is an event going to be stressfull for us depends specifically on our judgement of an event as threatening, does it represent a loss for us or is it, on the other hand, challenging for us. In other words, for something to become stressful for us, depends on our assesment of that specific event’s meaning for us, and the signs of stress we show are depending upon characteristics of an event itself, our personal features, as well as something we always emphasize – the social support. Today we know that social support is a number one protective factor, for both children and adults.

Traumatic events

Compared to stressfull events, which happen daily and are a part of our lives, when traumatic events accure, they become hard for everyone, they disturbe our sense of control over our lives, they become hard regardless we experienced them for ourselves or have people close to us been exposed to terrifying events. Due to their intensity and quality, traumatic events (life threat, violence, wounding, significant losses, dangerous illnesses, natural disasters…) for most people lead to suffering, regardless of their previous psychophysical condition as well as available coping mechanisms. Simply said, they are hard by themselves. We know that reactions after traumatic events are similar to those after stressfull events, but they are more intense, they last longer and have greater impact on our psychical health. 

After a traumatic event, all reactions are expected or normal or understandable bacause a traumatic event represents abnormal circumstances. Including the well known stressfull reactions, after a traumatic event painfull memories can be conspicupus, as well as avoiding feelings and conversations, arousal, imposing images and memories, excessive caution, iritability, fear and sensitivity. Longterm consequences of a traumatic event we see as destruction of our worldview and feeling of insecurity in life itself (‘world is a dangerous place’), changes in system of values (‘it’s not worth trying, people are not good’), but also pesimistic expectations of the future (‘bad things always happen to me’).

In dealing with stressful and traumatic events we have the need to soothe the intensitivity of what was experienced. To do that we use different strategies or coping mechanisms, more ore less efficiant, but our own, and the social support is, as always, very important. Individuals deal with many stressful and traumatic events and, in some way, recover from them.

An event that leads to crisis

However, some events are harder to deal with immediately after a hard experience. They bring us to a state od crisis because of their intensity (they are dangerous for us and our loved ones), and we can not overcome and deal with them using our usual coping mechanisms or problem solving strategies.

An event that leads to crisis is a sudden and/or rare event that is extremely disturbing and usually inculudes a threat or experience of loss of some kind and can have an effect on an individual (adult/child) as well as on a family and community. Familiar, right? Virus? Earthquake? Both? In some other period of life we would just wave off to it and say it’s impossible. But, it’s possible.

In crisis situations both adults and children react the way easy to recall by the ones who experienced it and psychologysts describe them like this: we are overwhelmed with emotions (‘will I be able to make it’, ‘this fear is too big’), we are thoughtfully puzzled and confused (we don’t know what to do, althought we knew it before so, for example, during an earthquacke we yell to our neighbour: ‘Sanja, what should I do?’) and disorganized in our behaviour (constantly on the go, or, on the other hand, very calm, we feel like we don’t know where to start from when something needs to be done etc.). Those kind of reactions in crisis can lead to feeling of losing one’s autonomy and control over life, feeling of helplessness, and that is why our usuall functioning is difficult or impossible when in crisis, and our attempts to solve the situation fail for a while.

Coping mechanisms have great impact on crisis dynamics and outcome

Crisis is a state od disturbed balance which shouldn’t be comprehended as a disorder, but as a state of increased vulnerability, and coping mechanisms have great impact on crisis dynamics and outcome. A successful outcome of crisis always means there is going to be a shift in an individual development, also. Therfore, after a crisis, we may function on some lower level, we may return to a level of functioning before the crisis, and some of us will function on an improved level, simply because they gained some new problem solving skills as well as life skills, some new coping ways required for further development and social support.

It’s important to know that crisis happen even to a well adjusted individuals and it’s a part of an individual’s development, but also development of a family and community. It’s good to remind ourselves that the word ‘crisis’ comes from a latin word ‘crisis’ and greek word ‘crisi’ – which mean decision, judgement. Chinese people, on the other hand, express the term crisis using two words: wei = risk, danger (because crisis can resolve badly) and ji = opportunity, possibility (besause new life skills and strenghts can acquire during crisis).

Psychological crisis interventions

Mental health professionals created preventive procedures and interventions that can be used after crisis to help adults and children overcoming what they experienced. Putting it widely, it’s a form of psychological first aid, and the procedures conducted with individuals who are in crisis are psychological crisis interventions. Their goal is to soothe the impact that crisis event has on an individual, to inhibit longterm unfortunate psychological consequences of a crisis event (mostly a traumatic one), to prevent emotional difficulties and to protect one’s mental health, to support the healing process of adults and children who have normal reactions within abnormal situations and to integrate a traumatic event into a person’s life experience with appropriate interpretation of what happened. It’s important to mention that psychological crisis interventions are not therapeutic, but preventive procedures 

How to help ourselves as well as others, especially children

In the current situation of a huge health crisis in the world, as well as natural disaster that hit about a quarter of our country, Croatia, it’s important to remind us all that we can help ourselves as well as others, especially children.

The most important thing to keep in mind is: keep offering support because person in crisis is open for receiving it and they need you.

And second, don’t forget that recovery generally takes longer than we hope for, longer than we would want, and it has it’s ups and downs. There are periods of upgrading and periods od deterioration, but in time the signs of trauma become rarer and soother.

At present time, it’s important to take care of ourselves. Try to make a certain routine in currrent situaton, for yourself and for your family. Talk about your feelings as well as your memories, let others know about your needs because if you don’t say them clearly, you may not recieve the support. Try to reduce getting information to a reasonable measure so you can get a chance to step back and do some other obligatory activities or simply the ones that bring you joy. Your focus should be on the clear and official information only. Optimistic visions of future and fantasizing about them helps, but keep in mind this is not the time to make big decisions, be gentle and patient with yourself and postpone decision making for later on.

In time of crisis be patient with your children, regardless of their age. Make structure within your family, include children into making plans, help them gain control of their everyday life. Tolerate some behaviors suited for younger children, tolerate your youngsters who express some of the behavior they have already outgrown, but also tolerate the big ones who will want more tenderness, or to leave the light on in their room at night… Do have understanding if the child wants to isolate himself. And if s/he wants to talk to someone other than you, support it because it means that s/he knows what he needs and so do you. School is different now, but don’t exert pressure. This is not a school crisis, this is a crisis much greater than our tight community and we are all stresses and upset. Keep the routine, but with emphasis on interconnection and emotional safety. Encourage children to do what they love, to engage in activities they love and enjoy. Generally speaking, in the time of crisis, it’s important that children get all available support, and opportunity to express and share difficult emotions (in accordance to their age and with the person important to them), be a model for coping with a situation and show optimism and faith in their strenghts. Stay close, listen to them and give them a sense of acceptance and respecting their feelings, thoughts and needs as well as the sense of security.

And be patient. Support is important in present time, but in a longrun as well, for times that are ahead of us. If you are not getting enough amount of support in a time of crisis, or if the signs of stress you manifest are getting more intense, seek for proffesional help, find a number for a psychologycal help line. By taking care of yourself, you also take care of others.

To finish up, here’s an ancient story:

Unce upon a time lived an old rabbi who loved to teach. He taught so many generations he lost count of. Furthermore, he was known for his ability to read other people’s minds and knew what they were thinking. Everyone believed in his powers and nobody quetioned them.

One day, when rabbi was very old, a boy named Moša decided to challenge him. He started thinking how to beat his powers. He kept thinking and thinking, walking around untill the earth paved beneath his feet and then he came up with an idea.

He will go on a meadow and catch a butteffly. Then, holding a butterfly in his hand, he will run to a wise old man and ask him: Rabbi, what do I have in my hand?’. He was absolutely certain the rabbi will say ‘butterfly’. Then he will ask him: ‘Is it alive or dead?’. If the rabbi says dead, Moša will open his hand and let the butterfly fly away. But if the rabbi says it’s alive, he will squeeze the butterfly in his hand and show the dead butterfly to a rabbi.

With this great idea he ran to the meadow to catch a butterfly. He was convinced that when you are looking for something and really want to find it, you’ll succed. Soon Moša had a butterfly in his hand and ran to the rabin breathless and excited.

The old man asleep when Moša came to him and entered a room. The boy was holding a butterfly in his hand, trying not to squeeze it and asked the first question: ‘Rabbi, what do I have in my hand?’. The old man was thinking and after a while said: ‘Butterfly, my son, you have a butterfly.’. Moša was pleased, looking at him with shinny eyes and asked: ‘Is it alive or dead?’. The old man closed his eyes and caressed his long gray beard. This time he was thinking for a long time. When he finally opened his eyes he said in his soft voice: ‘It’s all in your hands, son, all in your hands…’ (Mooly Lahad, 2000: Creative supervision)

Written by: Assist. prof. Bruna Profaca, Ph.D.

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