September 14, 2020

If you’re feeling anxious right now, you’re not alone. Overwhelming anxiety, constant worrying, trouble sleeping, and other depression-like symptoms are common responses before, during, and after crisis. 

Oregon wildfires have burned more than 1 million acres across the state, and dangerous air is hanging over our cities. Those are good reasons for fear and uncertainty. Layered on top of this disaster is the COVID-19 pandemic, an economic crisis, and widespread demonstrations against racial injustice in Oregon and beyond. 

“We are looking at an unprecedented confluence of events and that creates layers of grief,” said Leticia Sainz, Deputy Director of Multnomah County’s Behavioral Health Division. “Whatever you’re feeling right now, know that it’s OK. It’s important to find healthy ways to cope with what’s happening.” 

There are things we can all do to support our mental wellness. Try out the following five tips on how to cope with disaster. 

Acknowledge your feelings and forgive yourself

The first step towards healing is learning to identify what you’re feeling. Simply acknowledging your feelings can help calm anxious feelings. During stressful situations, it’s helpful to regularly check in with your body and mind with acceptance and non-judgment. 
 Acknowledge your feelings:
  • Assign words to your emotions (e.g. grief, anger, sadness, shame)

  • Scan your body and pay attention to physical sensations

  • Write your feelings on paper

“Trying to battle your emotions is only going to make the situation worse,” Sainz said. “It can be exhausting, both physically and emotionally. It’s better to make room for those emotions and focus on what you can do, instead of what you can’t.”

Protect your physical health

A healthy mind is connected to a healthy body. No matter how you’re feeling, it’s easier to cope if you’re taking care of your basic needs. Make sure you’re taking care of your physical self however you can, so you have the ability to focus on your emotions.
  • Make sure you’re getting enough sleep
  • Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water
  • Remember to feed yourself and give your body the nutrients it needs

  • If you can, make time for exercise indoors 

“Think of your body as your foundation,” Sainz said. “You can only begin to improve your mental health after your basic needs have already been taken care of. Stick to a physical wellness routine if it’s helpful, and set reminders to eat, drink water, and sleep.”

Support your emotional wellness

If you’re struggling with difficult feelings, it’s helpful to think about some ways to steer your emotions in a different direction. When you’re feeling overwhelmed or burned out, try to pause and lean on your natural supports. 
  • Stay in (virtual) touch with the people you love
  • Show affection to your pets

  • Pause: Take some deep breaths. Pray. Explore mindfulness

  • Make a gratitude list​​

“Talking with someone else, or playing with your pet, are just a couple ways of positively steering your emotions when you’re having difficult emotions,” Sainz said.

Find activities you enjoy

Creativity has been shown to benefit the mind during times of stress and isolation. Taking time to explore your personal interests and passions, even during times of crisis, can give your mind a break and allow yourself to re-focus on something that uplifts you. 
  • Make art

  • Take photos

  • Play music

  • Read books

  • Write a story. Keep a journal.

“We all have unique ways of feeling better when we’re experiencing difficult emotions,” Sainz said. “Think about what works for you, so that when those thoughts come up, you already have a list of activities that can help with whatever you’re feeling.”

Practice coping skills long term

After the trauma of the immediate disaster, it’s common to deal with lingering effects. If you’re having difficult feelings that won’t go away, talk with a mental health professional about a long-term coping strategy. 

Even if you think you can manage your emotions by yourself, talking with someone can help. A therapist can help you identify and practice problem-solving skills to help you get things back in order, which can help relieve any residual stress you may be feeling. 

“There’s the initial trauma of the event, then there’s the ongoing emotions after the immediate threat goes away, Sainz said. “Prepare to shore up your natural supports, build a community of people that can help you cope, and talk to an expert.” 

Are you having trouble coping? You are not alone. Call the Mental Health Call Center at 503-988-4888. Trained mental health experts are available 24 hours, seven days a week to help you heal.