Whether from an earthquake, a job loss or the loss of a family member, everyone can expect to face upheaval at some point in life. Natalia Ramos, MD, MPH, and Reem Abu-Libdeh, MD, are UCLA psychiatrists in Century City and Brentwood, respectively. They offer strategies for coping when crisis strikes.
“The body’s stress-response system, which releases chemicals like norepinephrine and cortisol, gets activated under threat and wanes as the threat recedes,” Dr. Ramos says. “In a prolonged crisis, the system remains activated, leading to symptoms such as disturbed sleep, memory problems and loss of concentration.” Dr. Abu-Libdeh ads that “psychologically, the uncertainty of crisis often puts people in the world of what ifs and worst case scenarios. There can also be grieving, whether for the loss of a person or the loss of how life used to be.”
Stick to a routine. “Going to bed at a certain time, eating meals consistently, keeping a schedule for work and exercise gives days a consistent cadence,” Dr. Ramos says. “A routine can help people feel on track and grounded in times of turmoil and change.”
Acknowledge feelings. “It’s helpful for people to accept where they are,” Dr. Ramos says. “Things may be really tough during crisis, and that’s okay. People should focus on influencing the things they have some control over or that are important to them.” Dr. Abu-Libdeh adds, “Try to be generous with yourself during this time. Nobody’s expecting you to be perfect.”
Try mindfulness. “Mindfulness helps people to come back to the present, where they’re okay, rather than in the future, where they may be catastrophizing,” Dr. Abu-Libdeh says. She also recommends people take a few minutes each day to name three things for which they are grateful. The UCLA Mindfulness Resource Center (MARC) offers free guided meditations and weekly live podcasts online at uclahealth.org/marc and through its UCLA Mindful app.
Care for your body. Remember the basics: Engage in regular physical activity, eat nutritious foods, stay hydrated and prioritize sleep. Avoid masking feelings with alcohol, drugs or other harmful substances, Drs. Ramos and Abu-Libdeh counsel.
Look outward. “Give back to the community in some small way, if possible, whether by donating money, volunteering or helping a neighbor,” Dr. Abu-Libdeh says. This can decrease the sense of helplessness and increase feelings of wellbeing.
“Even more than adults, children need a sense of routine and normalcy in the house,” Dr. Ramos says. “It helps when they know what to expect throughout the day.” She also recommends mediating children’s exposure to information about the crisis and giving honest, straightforward and age-appropriate answers to children’s questions.
“It’s normal for people to feel stress during a crisis situation, but when someone’s anxiety or mood profoundly interferes with going about their regular day-to-day activities, they should talk to their health care providers,” Dr. Ramos says. “Their primary care physician may be able to address their concerns or may refer them to see a therapist or psychiatrist.”