After disaster or crisis, it is typical, normal and adaptive to experience distress. Our bodies are designed to keep us safe from any potential physical threat. In the moment, we are flooded with a cascade of hormones that are preparing us to make any movement or decision necessary for our survival. The sympathetic response, in the moment, is adaptive and healthy, the responses afterwards such as a sense of loss, grieving, distress, is also normal. But, prolonged, can become unhealthy, leading to a lasting negative impact on our mental health and bodies.
So why is it important to understand stress and mental health after crisis? Like mentioned previously, it is normal to experience some acute stress, emotional stress, grief, loss, depression or physical stress. These responses need to be acknowledged and supported. This support is important from both the interpersonal (community, close ones) connections and the intrapersonal (your self). The majority of those directly affected by a difficult event will have enough resiliency to bounce back and begin rebuilding their lives. A large percentage (60% to 90%)* will experience acute distress (flashbacks, confusion, anxiety), 5% to 49%* will fall into dysfunction. Dysfunction means the intensity of their symptoms keeps them from completing important or daily tasks (taking a shower, eating, rebuilding). Those in dysfunction will need medical or psychological care.
If what I am experiencing is normal, why should I know about distress vs dysfunction? Acute distress should be monitored, observed, and supported, because, although it is expected to resolve, left ignored, dismissed or buried, a person could fall into dysfunction. Leaving them in a more severe and serious condition. The ones most at risk are those who were already struggling with a mental health condition or taking medication for a chronic condition. Just because something maybe common and normal, doesn't mean that the person is ok. We are all responsible for the resiliency and health of our community.
How do I tell who needs the most support? Remember, everyone will need support from their community, close ones, and self, after crisis. Social support is a positive predictor for mental health after a crisis. Just because someone seems like they haven't been as impacted, or doing well, doesn't mean that it's ok to dismiss their "minor" concerns. Even something minor, if left unacknowledged, can turn into something larger and chronic such as PTSD. Some people also cope by trying to appear as if they are ok, even though they are not doing well. A simple check-in to say hi to a friend who has experienced a difficult event can go a long way, same with taking a moment to check in with yourself. Be present and acknowledge the pain, grief, and loss.
Eustress vs Distress vs Dysfunction
After a crisis, people under this category are impacted but are generally doing well.
Motivated to change
Experiences sadness, grief, anxiety or stress
Able to complete daily tasks (shower, finances, moving, rebuilding)
Mild to moderate in severity but are able to complete daily and important tasks. Can be at risk to decompensate (fall into dysfunction). Common symptoms are: