What Do We Know About Resilience in the Wake of Disaster?

We have evidence of what works, lessons learned, to guide us.
Lloyd Sederer, MD

Lloyd Sederer, MD

Advisory Board Chair

During this time of “social distancing” and “sheltering at home,” this means over-communicating. Use whatever device works best for you and those you contact. It is not the medium that counts, it’s the message of being close despite the circumstances.

Protective Factors
  • Regular, frequent contact with others – phone, email, web-based video
  • Housing and food
  • Permission – a social norm – that talking about distress is beneficial
  • Employment, or the prospect of it returning
  • Faith
  • Hope
Risk Factors
  • Active mental or substance use disorder
  • Poverty
  • Limited education;
  • Physical inactivity
  • Unemployment
  • Domestic and neighborhood violence
  • Lack of access to health and mental health care

Below is an abridged version of an article that appeared yesterday on Psychology Today, written by Dr. Lloyd Sederer. Lloyd I. Sederer, MD, is Adjunct Professor, Columbia University School of Public Health; Director, Columbia Psychiatry Media; Distinguished Psychiatrist Advisor, NYS Office of Mental Health; and Contributing Writer for Psychology Today, the New York Journal of Books, and a variety of other print and on-line publications. He also has been Executive Deputy Commissioner for Mental Hygiene Services in NYC, Medical Director and Executive Vice President of McLean Hospital in Belmont, MA (a Harvard teaching hospital), and Director of the Division of Clinical Services for the American Psychiatric Association. To read the full article, which includes references and more clinical explanation, please CLICK HERE.

While every disaster—and every community and governmental entity—is unique, there are clear, universal lessons, to guide us. What works are: 

First, a set of organizational mandates. unfaltering urgency of response; clear accountability; continuous coordination among the myriad of agencies and organizations charged with responding to the disaster, responsible media coverage; and preparation for the next disaster.

That leaves the human responses, which are our focus here.

Protective factors include: a supportive family and friends – this has been shown to make for longer and healthier lives; over-communication, because isolation fosters loneliness, regular even frequent contact with others who care about us and whom we care about – phone, email, web-based video calls (Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, etc.); housing and food “stability,” permission – a social norm – that talking about distress  is beneficial; employment, or the prospect of it returning as the disaster abates; faith; and hope.

Risk factors include: a pre-existing or active mental or substance use disorder; poverty; limited education; physical inactivity (a sedentary life-style); unemployment; domestic and neighborhood violence; and lack of access to effective health and mental health care.

How can we protect our health and well-being? 

The Harvard Study of Adult Development asked “What is the best predictor of a long and happy life?” The answer was enduring and trustworthy relationships. That’s the protective power of healthy attachments to others, and it plays a vital role in resilience to disasters and crises.

During this time of “social distancing” and “sheltering at home,” this means over-communicating. Use whatever device works best for you and those you contact. It is not the medium that counts, it’s the message of being close despite the circumstances. Don’t be afraid to speak your mind, because “even heroes need to talk.” But, remember, our aim is to buoy others, which happens when we find the positive.

Far too many people will not have the security of a home or food on the table.  Already, some cities are using empty dormitories and hotels, gyms, stadiums, shelters too, to care for those most vulnerable. We can support this work by urging our elected officials to stand by and for the most vulnerable, the moral measure of a society. We can also contribute to known non-governmental organizations that serve the poor and homeless.

Faith has many meanings. It may be with a religion, or secular, coming from within. Explore your own faith  during this time.

Andrew Sorkin urged that workers continue receiving their pay from government subsidies to employers, enabling businesses and workers to survive the economic tailspin underway. The alternative is a very, very long business recovery would be far worse. Being able to pay the rent and knowing a job would be there in the future are extraordinary sources of hope.

How can we take better care of ourselves? In five ways. One has been covered, relationships with those you care about and who care about you. The second and third are sleep and good nutrition – like a Mediterranean diet and easy on the sugars. The fourth is physically moving our bodies, which is much harder if we are confined. But as long as we have internet, music, and television we will have countless programs. Even 20 minutes a day can do the job. Finally, “mind-body” activities that lower stress, heart rate and blood pressure, and even protecting the insulin-making cells in the pancreas and other health benefits. These include: yoga, meditation, slow breathing, mindfulness, and Tai Chi.

We face a worldwide pandemic, in which no one will be spared in one way or another. Yet we survived the Great Depression and two World Wars. We are resilient, but it will take work. And solidarity. Kindness and patience too. This is the new normal, and we can do this.


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