“Her son got the text first and rushed in breathless. He couldn’t speak but showed them the text. The family gathered and huddled in a circle to pray when the sirens went off telling them to seek shelter. She said it is going to take a long time to come down from that one.”
A long time is right.
Can you imagine? My pulse is quickening and my breath is getting shallow just thinking about the fear they must have experienced in Hawaii when they received the alert.
And the sirens continued for 38 minutes before they were told it was a false alarm; I imagine the anxiety and panic increased with each second they blared.
It was a trauma I cannot imagine enduring. And before we dismiss it is as, “It’s over”, “Nothing to worry about now”, ” Just a scare”, “Let’s move on”, their bodies will feel the effects of that scare for a long time; unless they take specific steps to recover from the stress.
The news is telling the story. The mistake. How it happened. Why it took so long to get the word out that it was a false alarm. They are telling the who, what, where, and why.
But no one is talking about the toll this kind of trauma will take on everyone that lived through it, especially the children.
The fear they faced might have been a false alarm, but their primitive part of their brains that control the fight or flight response, couldn’t tell the difference. And all of Hawaii was awash with stress hormones coursing through their bodies.
We have been designed with a built in alarm system. The minute that sweet boy, and countless others, got that text their primitive brain took over. Immediately the stress hormones of cortisol and adrenaline were released to prepare the body to fight or flee. And I am assuming the desire to flee was pretty strong, to say the least.
We have all felt it. From sweaty palms to shortness of breath to racing pulse. It could have been a car accident that triggered it for us, or a scary incident with a child, or something as seemingly harmless as a bump in the night that caused the surge of hormones. To our brain, the response is all the same.
But, I venture to say none of us has experienced the fear and panic of what was thought to be a real nuclear missile heading towards them.
Did they make phone calls to say goodbyes?
Did they collapse when the word came that it was not a real threat?
And now what? How do the people of Hawaii begin to recover?
I don’t claim to be an expert on trauma and it’s effects on the body, but I have learned a thing or two as a result of helping my own children heal from their chronic and toxic stress.
One of the surprising things I have learned is that, to our primitive brain, the threats to our safety are all the same. Our brain cannot distinguish between real or perceived threats; unthinkable ones like a nuclear missile, or seemingly harmless ones like being chased by a Chihuahua (I am not Chihuahua shaming, it is just the smallest dog to pop in my head). It all triggers the same response; A flood of stress hormones. And unless you bring your body back to a state of calm and equilibrium after the threat, those stress hormones can wreak havoc on our bodies and minds.
According to Robert Sapolsky Phd,”The stress response does more damage than the stressor itself as we wallow in stress hormones”
Once the brain has experienced a trauma, it becomes hyper alert. The stress response is much more easily triggered in an effort to prepare for “what’s coming next”. We all know the stories of veterans coming home from war with PTSD, but it can happen in lesser traumatic experiences as well.
I think of those poor children (and parents) and how they may be sent into a state of anxiety and fear at the next unpredictable event; always on alert for the next threat. A loud horn screeching could be all it takes to send them back into a state of fear and panic.
So how do they, how do we, recover from the trauma and stress? Because, it may not have been the threat of a nuclear warhead we have experienced, but I dare say we all have experienced our own fight or flight experiences. Caring for a sick child or spouse. Living with someone with an addiction. Losing a job. Divorce. Grief. Even public speaking. All of these can, and do, cause our bodies to release stress hormones.
I don’t know if it will help, but these are the things that gave us back our life after seasons of chronic stress, fear, and anxiety.
Some are so simple you may be quick to dismiss them, I know I did. I promise you they are based in science and truly help bring the brain back to a place of calm and safety. Everyone can benefit, but my heart is especially thinking of the children as I write this.
So here is what I discovered helped my children and me get our stress response back to normal:
Breathe: It is the simplest and most effective way to calm yourself and boost the parasympathetic nervous system ( the part of the fight or flight response that serves to get your body back to calm). Long deep inhales and exhales. Just breathe. When you see your children showing signs of stress guide them to breathe deeply. Do it in the morning at breakfast table and at night before you go to bed.
Meditation: When you become aware of your breath and your body (grounding) you literally change your brain. You actually rewire your brain to not be so hyper vigilant to stressors. I was not a fan of meditation for a long time. “I pray, I thought. Isn’t that the same thing?” Not really, but both are helpful.
Yoga: Yoga was the final key to relieving my sons’ crippling anxiety. I literally watched it change his brain.
“PET scans show that after practicing yoga, cerebral blood flow to the amygdala, the brains alarm center, decreases, while blood flow to the frontal lobe and cortex increases” “Yoga also increases levels of GABA- a chemical that improves brain function and promotes calm” -Donna Jackson Nakazawa
Write: Especially if it is not easy for you or your children to share emotions. Writing is a safe way of releasing your feelings associated with a traumatic event. Keeping those emotions bottled up, or repressed, will only have negative consequences on your health; both physical and emotional. If your children don’t have the verbal or written skills, or would prefer, drawing is another option.
Prayer/gratitude: Just like meditation, prayer and gratitude can reroute and calm your mind and body.
Create Fun: It is hard for your body to be scared and stressed when you are laughing and having fun
Exercise: Do I really need to go over the benefits of exercise? Just do it. Get your kids to run, jump, skip and play.
Therapy: Last, but not least, If you find the stress is too much to handle on your own find a good therapist!
I wish I had known then, when my children were younger, what I know now about the effect of stress on children’s growing brains. It may have saved us years of struggle.
And one more thing. Parents, your children are looking to you to be that one stable person in their life to help them through stressful situations. So, if it means feeling silly by writing, drawing, breathing, or getting into yoga pants…do it anyway.
I wish I could give Hawaii a giant hug. But this was the only way I could think to help the stressed out island.
PS. There are lots of resources available on managing trauma and stress. Here are some that helped us:
Headspace: A meditation AP
Yoga: If going to a studio is not an option, my son just practiced with Adrienne on YouTube. Here is the link
Gratitude journal: There are several on Amazon.
Books on Meditation: Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics: A 10% Happier How-to Book
“Knowledge is power. Once you understand that your body and brain have been deeply affected, you can at last take the necessary, science – based steps to remove the fingerprints that adversity has left on your neurobiology.” -Donna Jackson Nakazawa