Disasters and the Body’s Response

From Linda M. Rio, M.A., Marriage and Family Therapist and PWN contributor –  As I am writing, I hear the helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft overhead fighting one of the many monstrous fires in California. Just a few days ago I was visiting family on the East Coast and at 5:20 am received an automated call from our local fire department about a voluntary evacuation order. The later named Woolsey Fire in Southern California had begun. I didn’t go back to sleep and for several days until able to get home felt completely helpless watching my local community deal with a horrific shooting as well as terrible fires. Today the amazing firefighters have very quickly fought this one and seem to have it contained. Full disclosure, I do not have a pituitary tumor (that I know of) or other neuroendocrine disorder. I say this because although my endocrine system isn’t compromised by one of these my body is still responding to the potential danger. My community of Thousand Oaks has had a lot to deal with recently so many of us are have a highly activated stress system. I count myself among the fortunate and already see the community coming together to help begin the healing process.

Those who do have a compromised endocrine system (my own term, but seems to describe either under or over-active Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) dysfunction) are likely to have an even more difficult time recovering from stressful events.  I hear from many pituitary patients that they have a great difficulty dealing with even ordinary life stress, not to mention disastrous times. It seems that in our world more and more disasters are happening…or is it that we hear about them more? As I was writing this, my sister-in-law on the East Coast said she was watching the flare-up fire in my area.

With social media, we are all exposed instantaneously to events around the world and with astonishing visual clarity. Until just a few decades ago humans only had to deal with crises in their own locale.

In the past when an emergency occurred a person’s H-P-A axis appropriately went to work to provide extra mental and physical capacity intended only for a short-term and immediate response, and once a crisis passed the body began the long process of re-balancing itself physically. The mental/emotional effects of trauma often take much longer. Today, however, we can be inundated with scenes of disasters, crises, war, shootings, etc. on a daily, if not hourly, basis. If we are not careful, we can inadvertently expose ourselves to crises on a regular basis that we have no way to respond to and more importantly to allow our bodies to heal and re-balance.

So, as one of several measures, I am taking I am writing this as a way to expend energy my H-P-A (aka “alarm system”) is designed to deal with trauma. While still on the East Coast I was quite aware of the physiological reactions to stress, especially because there was not much to do in response except for incessant texting to my family at home and postings on Facebook, Twitter, etc. I knew that I needed to “do” something physical so tried to walk as much as possible. Expanding physical energy through movement is one of the best things we can do since the H-P-A axis’s job is to alert us to danger, then trigger production of energy to get us out of harm’s way. Other ways of dealing with stress include talking to friends, and family.

Telling a story about a scary or crisis event is a way to eventually let it go and to heal. This is one reason why people find talking to a therapist helpful. It is also important to know that although our body’s alarm system can be quite useful in getting us out of an emergency, it can also have adverse effects. I know that I need to have someone else proof this article since the cognitive parts of my brain are probably not working as properly as I’d prefer. When under stress, or if overly activated by a pituitary, adrenal or other disorder, the part of the brain (pre-frontal cortex) that handles daily cognitive duties becomes less alert in order for other parts of the brain to respond to danger, like regulating the increase in heart rate to be able to pack the car and flee from fire, for example. The digestive system can also be affected being shut-down in an immediate response. Once immediate danger has passed food can, of course, inappropriately be used as a way to try to comfort a stressed body.

Anyone who has been in natural or other disasters will feel the automatic reactions the endocrine’s H-P-A axis is designed to address. Following an immediate crisis, the body hopefully will return to a more balanced place. But those who have a compromised system may find it will take longer, may need additional or new medication, or may need to contact their physicians to assist with the added stress. Traumatic events take time to heal. Some people have had many such events in their lives which can build upon one another leading to a more severe response such as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which is serious and needs specialized treatment.

Communities who gather together for memorials, tributes, as well as clothing drives, are healthy ways people can help their bodies, and their neighbors heal both physically and psychologically, but also in connection with one another. Social media postings of good will and concern to those affected by the disaster are also ways to connect and add positivity. We all need and want to feel safe again and making connections with others provides a way to re-balance and heal. I am confident that next spring my community will see those beautiful little blades of grass begin to grow amongst the blackened ashes of our hillsides as a sign of rebirth and the strength Mother Nature has to grow after pain and fear.


Our thanks to Linda M. Rio MA,  for providing this critical information and contributing to our publication. Read Linda’s past articles on PWN and learn more about Linda’s work by going to her website at:

www.lindamrio.com .

Linda’s Book:  “THE HORMONE FACTOR IN MENTAL HEALTH” is available through AMAZON.COM and other major booksellers.


Photo by Joanne Francis on Unsplash

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