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.
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 uh–mig-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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Jennifer Taylor, LCSW, RPT is an experienced child and family therapist and public speaker who specializes in trauma, ADHD, and conduct problems. Discover more about her diverse clinical background and family. Reach out to Jennifer with questions or comments by emailing at email@example.com
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