It's hard to imagine what so many of the Japanese people -- and others living in the earthquake-tsunami area -- are going through these days. They have survived one of the largest earthquakes in modern history and a massively destructive tsunami, and they are fearful about possible radiation poisoning from damaged nuclear reactors. But did you realize that simply watching disaster coverage on television can wreak havoc with your body?
Witnessing the clips of the earthquake as it rattled and shook through homes and offices, videos of the tsunami waves sweeping away whole towns (and imagining the countless thousands of people who were washed out to sea), recognizing the potential huge-scale horror as you see smoke coming from a nuclear reactor -- all of that has an impact on the viewer. Watching Japan's trauma, even safe in your warm, dry home,thousands of miles away, can cause anxiety, phobias, sleeplessness, digestive disorders and an increase in substance abuse. Eventually, it can negatively affect immune function, bone health and more.
The human mind and body deal with distress, to a degree, by pulling back from it. In extreme cases, it's called shock. It is easy to see shock in so many of the faces of the half a million people displaced from their homes in Japan. We tend to "leave" our bodies when frightened; disassociating is a natural initial reaction that gives us a break so we can deal with trauma, bit by bit. You may feel disbelief that this has happened, feel like you're not really here, or that you're floating, spacey or detached. Post traumatic stress syndrome, suffered by so many armed forces veterans, is the medical term for what can happen when too much trauma gets stored in your body.
Any kind of trauma -- a natural disaster, a school shooting, an accident, a rape or a home foreclosure -- can shock and impair your body and psyche. Memories of painful events may get suppressed, but the body never forgets.
If you've been traumatized, either in person or by watching it on TV, what can you do to release the effects from your system? There are five simple steps to take when you've been exposed to trauma:
- Talk about it. This actually releases the stored trauma from your body.
- Touch your own arms and legs to help you feel more present.
- Have someone else give you gentle, reassuring touch or massage. Feeling your body helps reconnect you to reality and realize that you are safe.
- Connect with nature--sit on your lawn or pet your dog to reconnect back to your body.
- Say to yourself, "I want to be here now," to counter the unconscious desire to leave your body when faced with danger. When you are not in your body, you are at risk for accident and disease.
Of course, there's no comparison between watching what's happening on TV or on your computer and actually being in Japan's devastated regions right now. But watching frightening images on TV can create much of the same problems in our bodies as if we were physically present. And we all share the fear of nuclear explosions, carried on winds around the globe and dumped on earth through rain. What is happening in Japan, the country that is best prepared for disasters such as this one, has shaken the world. Be aware of your reactions as you continue to follow the news. Monitor your own fears and anxiety and limit the amount of time you watch disturbing images. If you feel anxious, follow the steps above to release fear from your body. Then, connect to the love and compassion you have in your heart and send it to Japan.