Japan disaster: media impact upon mood and functioning

After a massive 8.9-magnitude earthquake and 33-ft tsunami hit northeast Japan last Friday, people around the world have been riveted by the media coverage of this devastating catastrophe. These disasters have been horrifying to contend with for the people of Japan, as the death toll is estimated at over 10,000, and countless people have lost loved ones and witnessed their homes and country being destroyed around them. The threat of a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant in northeast Japan has increased world-wide panic after news broke of explosions at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant in northeast Japan. These explosions pushed radiation levels to about 167 times the average annual dose of radiation, according to details released by the IAEA. It is still unknown “what the long-term or short-term effects of this [will be]” said Dr. Kirby Kemper, a noted nuclear physicist, physics professor and vice president of research at Florida State University. In one of the worst case scenarios, a complete melt down could occur, spewing large amounts of radioactivity into the atomosphere, threatening the health of humans and the earth’s delicate ecosystem in innumerous ways. Clearly, these catastrophic circumstances in Japan deserve the full support of humanitarian efforts around the world. But how does observing a massive disaster as it unfolds affect the rest of us, who are experiencing a wide range of emotions, such as panic, dispair, unending worry, and sadness? Those of us who are already vulnerable to depression and/or anxiety are especially impacted when diasasters such as those in Japan occur. Others may be better equipped to manage their emotional responses with coping methods that reduce stress, but they might not always be healthy strategies. What can we do to manage our overwhelming feelings in response to the Japan disaster? This article serves to provide a few simple strategies for managing the uncontrollable worry, fear, and anxiety we experience when flooded with media news of ongoing disaster or a horrifying event.

Identify and replace unhealthy coping methods for dealing with stress.

These coping strategies may temporarily reduce stress, but they can cause more damage in the long run:

* Smoking
* Drinking too much alcohol
* Overeating or undereating
* Zoning out for hours in front of the TV or computer
* Withdrawing from friends, family, and activities

* Using pills or recreational drugs to relax
* Sleeping too much
* Procrastinating
* Filling up every minute of the day to avoid dealing with problems
* Taking out your stress on others (lashing out, angry outbursts, physical violence)

Learn more effective and healthier ways to cope with stress.

If your methods of coping with stress aren’t improving your emotional and physical well-being, it’s time start using healthier ones. There are many healthy ways to cope with stress, but they all require effort and some change on your part. Since everyone responds to stress differently, there is no “one size fits all” solution to reducing it. No single method works for everyone or in all situations, so practice different strategies to see what suits you best. Prioritize methods that help you feel calm and in control. Practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, visualization, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, and yoga, can trigger the body’s own natural relaxation response, which is a powerful antidote to stress.

How do relaxation techniques effect the body’s physiology and health?

“The stress response” floods your body with the chemical cortisol, which prepare you for “fight or flight.” But while the stress response is helpful in true emergency situations where you must be alert and ready to act, it wears your body down when constantly activated, and can lead to serious problems such as depression, anxiety, insomnia and stress related obesity. The relaxation response rebalances your body’s physiological system by: deepening your breathing, reducing stress hormones, slowing down your heart rate and blood pressure, and relaxing your muscles. In addition to its calming physical effects, research shows that the relaxation response also increases energy/ability to focus, fight diseases, relieves aches and pains, heightens problem-solving abilities, and boosts motivation and productivity.

Pay attention to your irrational thoughts.

Worry, panic and fear are all normal and automatic human responses to real or imagined threats to safety. These feelings work as a natural alert system, compelling us to make necessary changes that can remove us from harm’s way. While sometimes these feelings work in our best interest, they can also be hazardous to our mental and physical state of health if left unmanaged. These automatic thoughts of worry and panic can become distorted when left unchecked, and actually prevent us from being able to function optimally in our daily lives. Learning to refute and manage irrational thoughts is an important step in healthy coping when faced with uncontrollable circumstances, such as the recent catastrophic events in Japan.

Be prepared as best as possible, and seek professional help if necessary.

The disaster in Japan highlights the importance of preparing yourself and your loved ones for a natural disaster. FEMA and the American Red Cross offer online resources that can help you prepare. Take the necessary precautions, but use the aforementioned strategies to prevent yourself from being plagued with uncontrollable worry. For some, seeking the help from a trained mental health professional skilled in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy may be necessary to deal with ongoing anxiety, panic attacks and/or depression.

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