Thursday, March 30, 2023
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Mental health strategies for coping after disasters

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Floods, Cyclone Gabrielle, devastating earthquakes – is 2023 feeling a bit much already? Psychologists and mental health experts say acknowledging your feelings, working on the things you can control and connecting with others are all crucial coping mechanisms.

Psychologist Dr Fiona Crichton, VP clinical at mental health service Groov, says it’s completely understandable that people feel overwhelmed by current events.

“The world feels very perilous right now and it can feel like, ‘What’s next?’,” she says. “But it’s important to remind ourselves that even in the darkest times in history there are always moments of light.

“It’s important to acknowledge and process your feelings, but it’s also important to look for small good things. This will help rewire your brain.”

While it’s important to stay informed, Dr Tania Wilson, general manager of ProCare Fresh Minds and director of psychological and behavioural health, says the volume of information available can heighten anxiety and negatively skew our thinking.

“It’s good to stay informed, but we need to be mindful about where our information is coming from and how much of it we consume,” she says.

“All of us, me included, have a tendency to scroll through all the media platforms and look at as much as we can. Check to see how that makes you feel – does it make you feel aroha for those impacted, or does it leave you with a sense of doom and gloom?”

A young person slouches in a yellow bean bag, scrolling on their phone.

Photo: Photo by Vardan Papikyan on Unsplash

If you’re starting to feel immobilised by the news, Wilson says it’s time to step away.

“If you have that sense of dread, it might be a sign of overload.”

Crichton says connection with others is the biggest predictor of wellbeing.

“From an evolutionary point of view, it’s all about having people in your corner. Staying connected with other people, even if that means just feeling that you can reach out with a text when you’re overwhelmed, is so important. 

“Even micro-connections, like smiling at someone when you’re out walking your dog in the park, help to keep our good neuro-transmitters topped up so we can cope with what’s around us. These connections are like nutrients for your brain.”

Having something to look forward to, such as a family games night, or a chat on the sofa with a friend or partner, is also restorative.

“Planning for fun and laughter can be really protective for our brains,” she says. “When we look forward to a future action, the brain will respond as if it was already happening, and release all the endorphins, serotonin and dopamine.”

Image of two people having coffee together, their hands and the coffee are visible.

Photo: Photo by Priscilla du Preez on Unsplash

Crichton says people who feel upset by the recent disasters even though they might not be directly impacted shouldn’t feel guilty.

“People often say, ‘I feel terrible about everything but I’m not entitled to feel like I can’t cope because nothing bad has happened to me’. It’s fine to feel the way you feel. Get rid of that inner critic.”

At the same time, she says, focusing on the good things in life – and reframing the bad stuff – is more important than ever. 

“Now’s the time to double down on things you enjoy and focus on those moments. Top up on all those boring but important things like getting enough sleep, eating good food and drinking lots of water. Don’t binge on the bad stuff and remember that through adversity comes learning and opportunities. Doing that sets us up to live well when everything feels dicey.”

Parents and caregivers concerned about anxious or upset tamariki and rangatahi should “put their own oxygen masks on first”, says Kristina Cavit MNZM, founder of mental health charity The Kindness Institute.

Image of Kristina Cavit MNZM smiling at the camera.

Kristina Cavitt MNZM
Photo: Supplied

“If we want our young people to learn to manage and regulate their emotions, we need to let them see us doing it. Let them see us making mistakes. Often we’re scared of having these conversations about big feelings with our young people because we’re afraid of getting it wrong, or it’s not part of our culture, or we think we need to be more qualified to talk to them about it.

“But, you know, what’s really scary is not having this kōrero. You don’t need to be a qualified counsellor to talk to young people and support them through anxious and hard times, you just need to create a calm environment.”

Cavit says putting the work into whakawhanaungatanga, or connecting, accounts for “about 80 percent of the mahi” when talking to young people. 

“Then it’s all about acknowledging their feelings; it’s normal to feel anxious or overwhelmed or scared. Normalising and acknowledging those feelings can take the power away from stressful emotions. Helping your young people to focus on what they can control is really empowering.”

Kindness Institute tuakana Te Aorangi-Kowhai Morini (Waikato, Tainui, Ngāpuhi) says now is the perfect time to put the principles of manaakitanga into action.

“Growing up on the marae we’re always taught to manaaki our manuhiri, our visitors. I think it’s important to continue these practices every day, not just on the marae and not just with visitors, but with people we’re familiar with as well.

“Doing something for someone else, even if it’s just a simple check-in or dropping off some kai, can make us feel really good about ourselves.”

* The Kindness Institute is offering a youth anxiety course to those who have been affected by the cyclone and flooding.

Where to get help:

  • Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason. 
  • Lifeline: 0800 543 354  or text HELP to 4357
  • Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.
  • Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7) or text 4202
  • Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)
  • Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email
  • What’s Up: free counselling for 5 to 19 years old, online chat 11am-10.30pm 7days/week or free phone 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 11am-11pm 
  • Asian Family Services: 0800 862 342 Monday to Friday 9am to 8pm or text 832 Monday to Friday 9am – 5pm. Languages spoken: Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi and English. 
  • Rural Support Trust Helpline: 0800 787 254
  • Healthline: 0800 611 116
  • Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
  • OUTLine: 0800 688 5463 (6pm-9pm)

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

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