January 16, 2018

It’s been two full days since Hawaii’s ballistic missile false alarm.  Many people have blogged about what it was like to think you were going to die.

People who were not here really don’t understand it.  After all, they didn’t even know about it UNTIL IT WAS OVER.

But for people in Hawaii,  it was stressful to say the least.

And frankly, the news coverage about it has not been very helpful.  In fact, it is all quite dismal.  There really are no fallout shelters and even if there were, you probably couldn’t get through the traffic to get to one in time.  The “advice” about what to do includes “lay down flat in the street” if you can’t get inside.   Is this a joke?

So, from a mental health counselor and play therapist who experienced this first hand, it was helpful for me to actually write down what  OUR BRAINS went through on Saturday 1/13/18 around 8am so that I can process it myself.

Parents, it is helpful if you understand this because then you can explain it to your children.


The Amgydala Is Attempting To Determine the Nature of Threat

Even for trained therapists, understanding the parts of the brain and how they all function can be very difficult.  But, put very simply, the amygdala (pronounced uhmig-duh-luh)  is the part of the brain that is most responsible for our FEAR response.

You can go here to see a picture of the brain and where the amygdala is located.  But basically, the job of the amygdala is to assess for threats.

When you got the message on your phone (or like me, saw it while scanning Facebook posts),it was your amygdala that was immediately activated and started asking questions.

Questions like:

  • What do I know about this situation?
  • Is this familiar or unfamiliar?
  • Is this real or not real?
  • Can this information be trusted?
  • What are my senses telling me about how afraid I should be?

 During this time, you may have thought:

  • It’s  weird that the local news is still showing basketball games.
  • And later…well it IS on the ticker on the news station now so this is more serious.
  • I do (or don’t) hear the warning sirens -depending on where you are- so that makes me feel more scared (or less).
  • I can’t find anything about it online (and, the Hawaii Emergency Response website is not loading/crashed).
  • I have heard about this threat on the news a lot lately and we’ve been practicing for the past two months to prepare for this situation.
  • The message says “THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
  • I know that the Navy has ways to shoot it down OR
  • I’m not confident that we have a way to fight this thing.
  • (and for me personally). My husband is not here and while we are talking on the phone, our call is disconnected.  (HUGE AMYGDALA response there).

The amygdala responded in different ways:

  1. This is HUGE.  This is SERIOUS.  We could DIE. 
  2. Hmm. This doesn’t make total SENSE.  I need MORE INFORMATION.  I am CONFUSED.
  3. I don’t believe this.  This ISN’T RIGHT. We are OKAY. 

And all responses are NORMAL.

Your brain then starts deciding what to do about this threat (or challenge) as my fellow play therapist Lisa Dion explains in this very wonderful podcast episode about the amygdala.

In this podcast, Lisa explains that the first threat (or challenge) that the brain assesses is regarding physical and emotional safety.

So, as we were all taking in all of this sensory information (what am I seeing, hearing, feeling in this moment), people started to take action.

Those actions included:

  • Going back to sleep or going about their normal routine
  • For me, changing out of pajamas and into real clothes
  • Gathering supplies
  • Making provisions to shelter (clearing out space in the closet, getting blankets or mattresses, whatever)
  • Making additional phone calls (to get information, to talk to relatives)
  • Gathering our pets and children
  • Looking for somewhere to shelter in place
  • Trying to drive closer to family members or safety
  • Doing nothing (feeling unable to move)
  • Actively seeking more information (Googling, looking for news, listening for sirens).

Everyone did whatever they thought they needed to do in that moment to keep themselves and their family members ALIVE and SAFE.

And considering, none of us knew exactly what we needed to do to achieve that goal…we just followed our own instincts.  We were trying to take something  unknown and make it manageable.

Whatever response you had in that moment was NORMAL.  

That is exactly how people in that situation FEEL, THINK, and RESPOND.

And that is what you can teach your children.  How they felt in that moment was normal.  And how they feel about it today is part of a range of expected emotions.


Look for the Helpers

After tragedies, people often reference the quote from Fred Rogers, “look for the helpers.”

And this event was no different.  Remember all the people passing along information in the neighborhood Facebook groups.  Remember, the strangers who were sharing resources or ideas about what was going on.  Remember, Tulsi Gabbard tweeting out that this was a false alarm.

For us, 38 minutes seemed like an awful long time for “HELP” to arrive.

But even in those minutes that we were all waiting for the official word, we were helping each other.

  • We were helping each other find places to shelter.
  • We were helping our children to feel less afraid.
  • We were helping our far away loved ones prepare for our possible deaths.
  • We were helping by spreading the word that this was a mistake.

Now, I do realize that not EVERYONE was helpful.  I’ve heard the stories about people locked out of stores.  I know that someone was struck by a vehicle in their rush to find safety.  But, even under these circumstances, most people were trying to HELP others when they could.


In this heightened state of threat management, the news that this was all a big mistake was both relieving and infuriating all at the same time.  Because our bodies had already responded to the threat (our blood pressure was up, our hearts beating fast, our breathing more rapid) and we weren’t able to just turn all that off just yet. The body doesn’t work like a light switch. It takes some time to calm the amygdala.

So naturally, people got angry.  Typical responses included:

  • How could this happen?
  • Why would you do a test without telling us?
  • Where is this button and how did this happen?
  • That person should be fired.
  • They all should be fired.
  • Maybe it really was a missile and it got shot down and they are hiding that from us.
  • Maybe THIS is another mistake.
  • What if this happens again?
  • We are not ready.
  • This is messed up.
  • No one understands what this was like for us.
  • This is unfair.

And probably more colorful and profane versions of those questions too.  That is how people feel when they go through something like this.

In the two days following this false alarm, I saw many people do very helpful things for their brains and their bodies.  This was part of our ability to calm our amgydala back down and return to a somewhat normal state of functioning.

Positive Coping Skills After The False Alarm:

  • Going to church
  • Going to the beach
  • Taking a hike or walk in nature
  • Spending time with your family or calling relatives far away
  • Creating a real emergency kit
  • Talking with friends and neighbors about your experience
  • Playing games
  • Seeking support from mental health providers
  • Making jokes or memes

Other Things People Experience After the False Alarm:

  • Drinking Excessively or Using Drugs (Numbing the experience…not good, but it happens)
  • Engaging in Risky Behaviors (who cares, what if I die tomorrow?)
  • Getting Angry Easily or Yelling At People for No Reason (very common)
  • Overreacting to little mistakes or problems (very common)
  • Being overly jumpy, paranoid or on guard (text messages make you cringe)
  • Separation Anxiety (I don’t want to be far away from my family)

Again, this is all NORMAL.

There is no magic wand for making us all feel better.  But, if you are experiencing a lot of those more negative coping behaviors and they are persisting for weeks after this false alarm, I strongly encourage you to seek more support from a mental health professional.   If you need more specific help, please reach out to me through my website www.jentaylorplaytherapy.com (Note: It still says I am in Memphis, TN… I just got here to Oahu and it’s on my to-do list to update it).

Remember, you are not alone.  Your response was completely normal.  And there is help if you need it.

About the Author

Jen Taylor, LCSW-C, RPT-S is an EMDR Approved Consultant and Certified Journal to the Self Instructor.  She is a therapist specializing in complex trauma, an international play therapy teacher and a published writer of multiple play therapy chapters.  Jen is the creator of the original 2017 Play Therapy Summit and many other innovative programs for mental health professionals.  Jen uses writing therapy, play therapy and expressive arts for her clients and for other mental health professionals so they can lead more joyful and meaningful lives.  Jen encourages people to try new things and create daily habits that allow for incremental progress towards previously unimaginable results.   Jen is a travel enthusiast, an avid reader, and a girl who lifts weights and runs for fun.  

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