I've been thinking frequently about how our plans and routines can be thrown off track. As many of the tasks on my "to do" list keep getting bumped, I've been pondering the difference between procrastination and appropriate delays. You know how it goes: despite the best-laid plans for steady work, life interferes.
This topic has been on my mind in part because of sessions with one of my coaching clients—I'll call him David—who was just starting his first tenure track job as an Assistant Professor at Tulane University this fall.
David's plans, expectations and normal routines were ended when Katrina hit just three weeks after he'd moved to New Orleans.
We spoke the Friday after the hurricane and he told me his story of exodus. As the winds intensified on Sunday morning, he drove out ahead of the storm, found gas 100 miles north of the city, and was able to reach his family in New England. All week he was fixated (like so many of us) on television images of the unimaginable tragedy. He still spends hours each day reading descriptions of the situation on blogs posted by others who are there or still displaced.
"I feel so lucky," David said. "I got out. My losses are nothing compared to so many people," he continued, "but still, I feel completely shell-shocked. I spoke to my landlord and my first floor apartment was under 12 feet of water. Thankfully, I brought my dog and my laptop with me, but I've lost all my books, my papers, my furniture, my clothes, my photos."
Like so many evacuees, David is deeply appreciative of the outpouring of support that has followed the storm's devastation. For example, senior faculty members from his doctoral program department immediately offered him a position as a visiting professor. When we first talked after the storm, he needed to let them know whether he could start teaching in less than a week.
"What should I do?" he asked.
After discussing the options, we both agreed that the offer, though generous, would be too stressful to accept. David needs time to recover emotionally, and preparing a new course in five days would have been too much to handle.
Since then, in regular sessions, David and I have continued to talk about how to handle his upcoming decisions, and the emotional aftermath of the storm: his anxiety, difficulty sleeping, feelings of disorientation and emotional vulnerability.
David's situation has led me to think more generally about coping with unpredictable tragedies and crises. How can we face dire events? What should we keep in mind? Here are some of my suggestions in response:
Take Care of Yourself
The first principle of facing a crisis is to focus on emotional and physical self-care. Seeking support from friends and family is a priority. Getting adequate sleep, good nutrition and regular exercise are all essesential components of recovery.
After my first daughter was born, her pediatrician offered parenting advice that I've never forgotten: "Taking care of a baby is like being on an airplane and losing pressure," the doctor said. "Like the stewardesses tell you before takeoff, ‘first secure your own oxygen mask before helping others.'" These words have become a mantra for me—one I often repeat to clients under stress.
During and after a trauma of whatever nature, it is wise to put aside other obligations to take care of yourself. This may include seeking professional help from a mental health practitioner if your symptoms are severe and/or don't abate over time.
Give Yourself the Time to Mourn
David was very upset about losing his photos and mementos from childhood. He worried that his distress was too extreme:
"After all, they're just material possessions," he said.
"No, they're more than that," I countered. "They are memories and links to the past. You deserve to mourn such a significant loss. It is appropriate to feel devastated."
Our culture handles grief and mourning poorly. In psychotherapy sessions, people sometimes apologize to me when they cry. "I'm sorry I'm so upset," they say. I need to reassure them that their tears are appropriate—and many times healing.
Sometimes, if we move away from our losses too quickly, the feelings go underground only to resurface later in unhealthy ways. After a loss, we need to take the time to mourn.
Ward off guilt
David felt guilty for being upset about his own losses when other people had suffered so much more.
"Don't do this to yourself," I told him. "No matter how dire other people's circumstances, their problems do not invalidate your own loss."
When you feel stress or distress, don't discount your feelings. Comparisons with other people are rarely helpful during these times.
I frequently work with people who feel guilty when they are unable to maintain a "business as usual" attitude in the face of a personal crisis. One faculty member I coach felt terrible that she was unable to get her first book out to publishers while dealing with a mentally ill family member who needed to be hospitalized. She felt enormous shame when she asked for a year extension on the tenure clock. Fortunately, now that her book has come out and received excellent reviews, she can reassure herself that she set her priorities wisely.
Likewise, I once worked with a graduate student who was devastated by the death of her dog. At first she felt embarrassed that she was so affected, and guilty that her grief impeded working on her dissertation. But as we explored the role her pet had played—a loyal companion after a divorce, a source of comfort during hard times—she began to appreciate that her mourning was legitimate. Once she allowed herself to grieve without berating herself, she could begin to heal and move on.
Create Structure and Seek Social Support
During times of upheaval it can be helpful to establish routines. Having clear structure to our days can be comforting, probably because there are fewer unknowns in our lives and fewer choices to make on a day-to-day basis.
Are you in the midst of a crisis that has upended your life ? Try keeping a regular bedtime, regular meals, a regular schedule of exercise and regular contact with friends. One reason that the effects of Katrina have been so psychologically devastating to many evacuees is the loss of any semblance of normalcy in their lives.
Many of us isolate ourselves when depressed or anxious. It takes energy and courage to ask for help. Try to counter the tendency to withdraw. Instead, reach out to people in many settings. Support groups with people facing similar crises can be especially helpful when facing losses or stressors.
Anticipate That Other People May Have Unhelpful Reactions
The responses of colleagues, advisors, friends, and even family can hurt. People often say the wrong thing at the wrong time—usually in an effort to be helpful, but sometimes because they have little empathy. As I said before, our culture deals poorly with loss and people often feel uncomfortable about what to say or do in the face of another person's grief or anxiety.
I've worked with people who were attacked by self-doubt and guilt because of thoughtless statements by others. One graduate student I coach took a semester off from school to help her recently widowed mother settle into a retirement community. Her advisor had the nerve to scold the student for stepping away from her dissertation.
"If you want to be an academic," he said, "You've got to make your work a priority."
My reaction was that if he wants to be an adequate advisor, he'd better learn to be a compassionate human! One of the first goals of coaching with this student was to undo the self-doubt caused by her advisor's lack of empathy.
I disagree with a "work always comes first" mentality. The needs of family and friends will often take precedence over career concerns but this doesn't foreclose being a successful academic.
Of course your family needs to come first during a crisis. Don't ever second-guess yourself for having your career progress slowed down because of major life events—whether negative or positive. Take the time you need to cope with sad family events—death, or illness, or divorce. Also take the time to enjoy and celebrate the wonderful family events—such as marriages and the birth of a child. There will be times when personal rather than professional obligations must take precedence if you are to live a meaningful and gratifying life.
Set Your Own Pace for Recovery
"How long am I going to feel like this?" David asked. Unfortunately, I had no easy answer for this question.
Recovery from crisis conforms to no timetable. Don't let people talk you into "keeping busy" as a tactic for avoiding sadness. As I told David, "If you feel like crawling into bed, do so."
It is important to allow yourself the time and space to grieve, but don't let other people determine the schedule that is best for you. I counsel one woman who experienced a second trimester miscarriage; an especially traumatic loss because she'd gone through infertility treatment to become pregnant and thus worried that she'd never have a child. Although devastated, she decided to return to her normal teaching schedule after just a week.
"I feel like this is one area which I can control," she said about her decision to return to work quickly. For her, teaching was a reminder that there were things she could do well in the midst of feeling as though her body wasn't working properly. Teaching was something she could control even if she had no control over whether she would have the family she wanted. She was upset because she felt as though some of her colleagues were critical that she'd not taken more time off.
More often, there is pressure at work to return to your normal pace before you are ready. People think that it would be "good for you" to resume activities when you still need to recuperate. Only you can know how much you can handle and it is legitimate to request more time if needed.
Expect a Roller Coaster
Emotional recovery from trauma—great or small—is unpredictable. As you gain distance from the event, you're likely to feel a variety of inconsistent emotions. You'll have good days and bad days. Be patient: self-recrimination will not increase your productivity. Being hard on yourself will slow down recovery. When you do have a day where you feel better and are working well, be thankful—whether or not the improved mood lasts.
(This post was recently "published" in my bi-weekly Successful Academic Newsletter. I decided to "reprint" it here because I've been getting emails from readers -- including other academic Katrina survivors -- telling me they've felt helped by the message. My impression is that few of my blog readers also subscribe to my newsletter, so I hope to reach more people with this duplication.)