Mental Health and Stress: What Families Can Do During Times of External Stressors

The stress of a natural disaster, public health outbreak, or other serious situation going on in the world outside your home can be frightening and stressful. Families can take important steps to mitigate the negative consequences. Stick together, practice good coping strategies, stay informed and be prepared, and also take time to be distracted and have fun when possible. Know when it’s time to ask for professional mental health support.

Families should always be prepared to face a difficult situation that is out of their control. From a violent act to an unexpected loss, you may be caught off guard by a number of external factors that bring stress and worry to your home.

It’s important to remain calm, to cope together, to look out for each other, and to take appropriate steps to support those most vulnerable, including children and family members with mental illness.

What External Stressors Can Do to Individuals and Families

Difficult situations can be damaging in a number of ways, and everyone reacts differently. External stressors are those things that are outside of your control, which is part of the problem. There are plenty of internal, interpersonal issues that can cause distress in families and relationships, but external situations are difficult to manage in that you can’t necessarily fix the problem. What you can do is cope in healthy ways.

External stressors can include anything outside the family that causes distress: a violent act, a natural disaster, or a public health scare, for instance. These can affect each member in a different way, but as part of a group, a family also experiences the consequences of each individual’s reactions. Some of the potential implications include:

  • Physical health problems, like poor sleep or relapses of chronic illnesses
  • Negative emotions, including fear, anger, and distress
  • Social isolation
  • Damaged relationships, conflicts, poor communication
  • Difficulty concentrating and performing normal tasks and functions
  • Onset or relapse of mental illness
  • Risky behaviors

Coping With Specific Types of Stressful Situations

These are just a few of the examples of external stressors that can befall a family. One aspect of these situations that makes them so stressful is the lack of control. Anything you can do within your family to reassert control over your lives and your well-being will be helpful, even if they are only small measures.

Public Health Crisis

Outbreaks of illnesses, contamination of water, and other situations that become public health crises can be very distressing to families. Parents may worry about children, who are often especially vulnerable in these cases. Fear can become overwhelming and isolation can be a result of trying to stay safe.

In these situations, your family can cope by staying informed and taking recommended precautions. But avoid overexposure to information, especially for kids. Too much information causes unnecessary distress. Use distractions, like games, movies, and fun activities to cope during this difficult time.

Natural Disasters

A natural disaster is a tragedy that affects many people at once, which in some ways can be reassuring. Your family is likely not alone in being impacted by a tornado, hurricane, or flood. One important way to cope is to rely on community. Recognize that you are in this difficult situation together. Talk to neighbors, find out how you can help each other, and take active steps to make the situation better.

Violence or an Accident

Sudden violence, whether an assault, a car accident, or something bigger like a terror incident, tends to make people feel helpless, vulnerable, and afraid. These feelings and situations can make someone particularly susceptible to mental illness symptoms and relapses. An assault, for instance, is a risk factor for mental illness. Spend time making each other feel safer—especially children—and provide mental health care for those most affected.

Loss of a Loved One

Grief is a natural reaction to loss. As a family you can cope with the death of a loved one by being open to the process of grief. Listen to and comfort each other. Be patient and allow time to heal. Everyone will need their own time and their own process to get through it. However, if the symptoms of grief in one person worsen, continue much longer than in anyone else in the family, or cause significant distress and dysfunction, it could be a case of complicated grief. This mental illness is more likely in cases of sudden losses or losses of someone very close.

General Coping Mechanisms for Families

Any type of external stressor creates a situation in which families will suffer if they don’t take steps to cope in healthy, productive ways. First, be informed and take appropriate steps to be prepared for or to protect your family in ways specific to the situation. Then, use these kinds of coping strategies to mitigate stress and other negative consequences of going through this experience:

  • Distraction. Certain types of external situations take over the news and social media sites, and your instinct is likely to watch it all unfold. Staying informed is important, but it is also necessary to distract. This is also true for more personal situations, such as a death in the family. Taking attention away from the stressor and occupying the family with things like games, puzzles, and even chores is beneficial.
  • Physical activity. Exercise is great for stress. Take time to do something together as a family. Go for a walk if you can and spend some time outside in the fresh air. If staying indoors, do a workout together or do a yoga DVD.
  • Talk about feelings. You may be inclined to ignore the situation at hand or to pretend it isn’t happening, but this isn’t helpful. Some degree of distraction is good, but you also need to discuss what has happened and how it makes you feel. Take some time to talk as a family and make sure everyone feels safe expressing their real and difficult emotions. Make this age appropriate, of course.
  • Connect with others. Crisis situations tend to isolate people. You have your family together, but it can also help to reach out. Talk to neighbors or family in other areas and find out how they’re doing. Ask for support and help if you need it.
  • Get professional support. Sometimes having each other simply isn’t enough. If one or more people in the family are continuing to struggle, can’t focus on anything, have troubling feelings, or are engaging in destructive behaviors, contact your doctor or a mental health professional to find out what you can do next.

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Helping Children Cope

Reactions to stressors vary based on a number of factors, but age is among the most important. Children are particularly vulnerable in these difficult situations. It is important for parents and other adults to be aware of children’s reactions, behaviors, and feelings, and to provide them with comfort and a feeling of safety.

Model good coping skills because children react largely based on how the adults around them react. Let them know it is safe to talk about what happened, to ask questions, and to admit being scared. Avoid panicking and show them how to take charge of the situation in a reasonable, ordered way. Let them take part too, in any actions you take, when and how appropriate.

Know the Signs of Acute Stress Disorder and PTSD

Extreme stress may be traumatic for some family members, so be aware of the signs. If they last a few months, it could be acute stress disorder, but if the signs persist even longer or even get worse, your loved one may be struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The symptoms that someone may be traumatized include:

  • Intrusive thoughts, including unwanted and distressing memories, flashbacks, and nightmares
  • Avoidance of any situation, person, or place that triggers difficult thoughts or memories
  • Negative thoughts and feelings about oneself and the world, such as fear, anger, shame, detachment, and isolation
  • Easy arousal and startling, getting frightened easily, angry outbursts, and reckless or self-destructive behaviors

If you see these signs in a family member, they may benefit from a diagnosis and professional treatment. Therapy and other types of treatment will help them adjust, cope, and move on from the trauma.

External situations are almost always impossible to control. What you can control is how you and your family reacts, copes, and recovers.

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