Orange County Counseling

"A Nation United In Trauma: Using Self-Care to Heal"

By: Maritza Plascencia, M.A., Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

When tragedy happens and lives are lost, it can either make us feel intensely and take inventory on a personal level and in relation to others or simply leave us feeling numb with a sense of confusion and thoughts of uncertainty.  Monday, October 2, 2017, exactly a week ago as I write this, was the morning most people woke up to the tragic news of the mass shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada at the Route 91 Harvest festival, where 58 lives were lost and 500 plus were injured.  By now, most people have had some time to process the initial emotions that come up with something so devastating and as time goes on their feelings may be evolving from shock to sadness to anger and despair or maybe...nothing.  I have encountered many who have shared their inability to feel much as they are experiencing what some call "compassion fatigue" and others "emotional burnout."  Given how in recent times we have been bombarded through every social media outlet with images, stories and calls for support for victims and their families of the multiple hurricanes, earthquakes and now this massacre, on top of the warnings from experts of more natural disasters headed our way and rumors of nuclear war, based on impulsive threats from certain government leaders, most of us have probably asked ourselves if and when this will all be over.  Ironically, as I sit here in my office in Orange County California, just a few miles down the currently closed freeway, thousands are being evacuated from their homes, some for the second time in the last 30 days, due to the rapidly spreading wildfires.  It is therefore clear to see, from the point of view of anyone who knows and works with trauma, how the new "normal" is beginning to settle in and how so many are now operating primarily from a place of fear.  

It is especially important, during times like these, to remind ourselves that self-care is not an option, but a necessity.  We must keep in mind that repeated exposure to events that evoke feelings of fear and/or sadness can lead us to develop anxiety and depression, but in some cases can also lead us to block any and every emotion due to the overload on our nervous system and the threat to our psychological integrity.  We already live a fast-paced life with a high demand for our time, energy and attention and when events that are out of the ordinary take place we are being pushed to our limits.  If we are not mindful of how the external world is interacting with our internal world, we can be caught off guard when anxiety, depression or numbness hits us, like a ton of bricks falling on our chest (the general area most of us report feeling everything or nothing at all). 

There are many levels in the practice of self-care and most of us don't necessarily think of meeting our basic needs as one, though it is so.  In my experience, most people talk about that vacation they took, the last massage they got or about how the salon where they get their hair done serves mimosas or champagne, in reference to their self-care.  While those with less financial stability, often express a sense of defeat as they believe self-care is out of their reach.  Reality is that we are all surrounded by opportunities for self-care, but we are unable to recognize these because of how caught up we are in our busy lives and the fear of when the next tragedy will hit.  Below is a list of ideas of basic, inexpensive or free ways we can all practice self-care to ensure our healing from our exposure to or experience of these recent traumatic events.

  1. GET SOME REST!  Even when you feel you cannot fall asleep because your thoughts are keeping you awake, it is important to have some down time.  Which means, create an environment with minimal stimulus or none at all if possible.  Sometimes we must coax the mind and body into relaxation by setting up the mood through appealing to our senses.  If being in total darkness is not helping you fall asleep, be intentional with the lighting (dim lights, night light or battery operated candles).  Sometimes laying in bed listening to silence is not helpful and in fact can produce more restlessness than we can handle; YouTube is a great resource for us to introduce the kind of noise that we need when trying to rest (playing videos of white noise, nature sounds, or Tibetan singing bowls).  Some people report the smell of incense or using an essential oil diffuser (inexpensive ones can be found on Amazon or at places like Marshall's or TJ Maxx) or perhaps applying a lotion that contains the smell of lavender on the back of their neck are ways they find effective to become relaxed.  Personally, I find that drinking chamomile, cinnamon or any other decaffeinated tea helps put my body into a resting mode.  Finally, it is important to also consider the sense of touch; if possible switch to that softer blanket or if you are like me, the one that feels cool to the touch, but in fact is very warm.
  2. EAT!  Yes, even when you have no appetite despite it being over 6 hours since your last meal.  Have a fruit or some vegetables, maybe some trail mix or plain raisins/almonds, something simple.  If you are experiencing anxiety or depression, this will ensure you don't give yourself a physical reason to reinforce these.  
  3. STAY HYDRATED!  Drinking plenty of water (you can add some lemon wedges or pieces of fruit to make it more appealing) is one of the best ways we can safeguard the balance in our body because we release bacteria and toxins every time we have to empty our bladder.
  4. STAY ACTIVE!  We don't need a gym or to go hiking in order to get a good work out session (although both of these are pretty great).  Simply by doing things around our home (dusting, reorganizing, cleaning out, rearranging furniture) is a good way to break a sweat and get some of those "feel good" chemicals going in the brain.
  5. ENGAGE!  Doing things that give us a break from thinking about the tragedies surrounding us can be very helpful.  Meeting up with friends or visiting family can also reinforce the sense of community and support.  Engaging for empowerment and to combat the fear can be done by volunteering, donating money or simply doing a random act of kindness for another.
  6. DISENGAGE!  Getting away from doing and from others and taking time for just being can be a great way to check-in with ourselves.  Meditation, guided body-scan meditations (also found on YouTube) or prayer can great ways to disengage from the chaos that surrounds us. 
  7. TALK ABOUT IT!  If you have someone you trust that you feel comfortable talking to about your feelings or lack thereof, great!  Talking is what helps us process and integrate our experiences in a more adaptive way, it prevents us from stuffing ourselves with unfinished business that may show up later in the form of triggers, anger, anxiety, depression, hopelessness.  Think of it as mental and emotional health maintenance.  If you feel that you are in need of seeking professional help, know that affordable counseling may be available in your area.  If you don't know how to find it, begin by calling a therapist in your area and telling them what you are looking for, most therapists are happy to provide local referrals.  If you are one of the many people that were in the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas or lost a family member during the shooting you may qualify to have your counseling expenses covered by applying here.