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How to Help Others While Helping Yourself During Sandy's Aftermath

By Morris Cohen | November 6, 2012 9:58am

NEW YORK CITY — As we all deal with the aftermath of Sandy, it’s clear that there are thousands of New Yorkers in desperate need of assistance. But how much can you help, and how do you know when you're in need of assistance yourself? It’s a challenging balancing act, but one that can be made easier with a few simple suggestions.

To begin, let's start with a seemingly unrelated hypothetical question. Let's say you are traveling with a small child on a plane flight. The cabin de-pressurizes and the oxygen masks fall from the console. You know from paying attention to the flight attendants’ pre-flight safety presentation that you need to put the mask on or else you will pass out from a lack of oxygen. Now, do you put the oxygen mask on the child or yourself first?

While it’s a natural inclination, if you answered the child, you’re wrong. Why? In order for you to be helpful to the child, you need to have oxygen flowing to your brain so that you can have the wherewithal to put the mask on him or her. If you pass out, chances are the child will pass out as well. The takeaway — you need to put your needs first in order to be of any help to others.

I use this analogy all the time in my practice, as clients often put their own needs second. This leaves them feeling tired, anxious, angry, depressed and usually running on empty. When dealing with a crisis like Sandy, following these five suggestions can help you best take care of yourself, and give you the strength to support your fellow New Yorkers:

1. Maintain your routine.

If you had a routine that kept you feeling grounded before Sandy, keep at it. For some, this means going to a gym class, meditating, attending mass or services, meeting with friends at a coffeehouse or bar. It also means maintaining a healthy diet and getting enough sleep. Whatever you need to bring you a sense of connectedness and well-being is OK, even if it's zoning out in front of your favorite TV show. There's only one caveat on the TV rule:

2. Don’t overdose on media.

While most of us have a desire to be and stay informed, for mental health reasons it makes sense to limit your exposure to audio, images and video coverage of the storm. Trauma not only afflicts those who had intimate experiences with the storm, it also affects those who have an overexposure to media coverage about the storm, studies show. Be smart about how much and how long you watch or read about the storm on Facebook, Twitter, blogs and television broadcasts. If you feel yourself getting overloaded, turn it off. If not for your sake, then think about those who may be even more susceptible to trauma than you:

3. Exercise caution while viewing upsetting media with children.

An ounce of prevention here can help you avoid problems further down the road with your kids. Many of the post-Sandy images and reports are very frightening to children. Allow them time to process these pictures and stories by making time to answer any questions they may have in a supportive way. Try to limit their media intake as well as your own. You can set an example to your kids on how to have a healthy independence from your electronic devices by taking breaks and by discussing what you've seen. For more general information on how to help children and adolescents cope with a natural disaster, click here.

4. Take time during the day to perform a “check-in.”

It is often helpful to stop what we are doing and ask ourselves the following questions: “How am I feeling?” “When did I start feeling this way?” and “Was there something that triggered this feeling?” 

These simple questions help us to become more conscious of our moods and become aware that we can do something about them. Feeling sad? Try reaching out to a friend who will help lift the mood. Feeling helpless? Maybe you can seek out a volunteer opportunity (more on this a little later.) Just remember, thoughts are not feelings. “I feel like there’s too much to do” is a thought. The feeling behind that statement might be sadness, despair, anxiety or exhaustion. In my practice, I encourage my clients to perform a  “check-in” three times a day (in the morning about one hour after waking up, at lunchtime, and an hour before bedtime).

5. Volunteer and help others in order to help ourselves.

Some people feel guilty that they escaped the damage and have little to no interruption in their lives while others around them are enduring so much suffering. Some people feel powerless in the face of so much recovery that needs to take place in our area. We are social animals, and empathize deeply with others. New Yorkers are particularly interconnected because we live so close to each other. So one thing that can be very helpful when you're feeling powerless or overwhelmed is to tap into your innate desire for connectedness. Make a donation towards recovery. Donate blood.  Check in on elderly relatives or friends who may still be without power. Volunteer at the numerous opportunities throughout the five boroughs. Whenever we feel powerless, helpless or passive, the antidote is positive action.

Remember, you will be far more effective in helping others if you are taking care of yourself.

Morris Cohen is a Clinical Social Worker licensed by the State of New York, and maintains a private psychotherapy and consultation practice in Midtown Manhattan. You can visit his website at morriscohenlcsw.com.