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Coping with the Haiti Tragedy

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Stress experts respond to the top five questions on moms' minds right now.

haiti earthquake

Lisa Sharkey: As the pictures of devastation and sheer destruction in Haiti play over and over again on our televisions, on the Internet, and, for many of us, in our own minds, you and your children may find yourselves increasingly anxious, and even despondent.

We asked Dr. Stephanie McClellan and Dr. Beth Hamilton -- two of the nation's top experts on stress and the authors of So Stressed: The Ultimate Stress-Relief Plan for Women -- to answer five questions to help us psychologically and spiritually with a catastrophe that's hit so close to home and will be lingering for months if not years into the future as Haiti tries to recover and rebuild.

1. Even though I try to shield my children from the awful images in Haiti, I wonder if that's the right thing to do since nobody is walking around with blinders on. Should I keep them away and avoid any discussion?

The age and individual temperament of your child or children must be carefully considered as you decide as a mother how to best handle these difficult situations. We recommend a compassionate and truthful discussion of this catastrophic event, while at the same time emphasizing the empathic and generous behavior of people in our country and from around the world who are helping these people in desperate need. What a perfect opportunity to teach your children about the best human qualities like compassion, generosity, and empathy.

We also recommend limiting your children's visual exposure to terrifying and confusing images, as these traumatic images are so powerfully incorporated into long-lasting memory. It is also difficult for young children to understand that images playing over and over again on television are in fact replays and not live events that seem to have no resolution. Lastly, reassure your child that they are fortunate and safe.

The Ultimate stress relief plan

2. I cannot stop thinking about the poor families and the children left orphaned by this disaster. It's keeping me up at night and I am having trouble concentrating. How can I, short of medicating myself, begin to shake these thoughts?

Feelings of compassion and empathy are the gifts and burdens of being human. Although we are grateful to be personally spared the devastation, it is also easy for us as mothers, sisters, daughters, friends, and wives to grieve with and agonize over the human suffering we see. Our advice would be to assist in the relief efforts by giving according to your individual ability with either a monetary donation, contribution of your time, or through your prayer support.

Appropriate action can help relieve these thoughts of anxiety and helplessness. In addition, calming music, slow rhythmic breathing, chamomile tea, little or no coffee, and lavender oil will help calm your overly aroused mind and nervous system. Lastly, talking about and sharing your thoughts and fears about this tragedy with a good female friend or relative will comfort you by causing your brain to release a calming hormone called oxytocin. This is why women often feel better after they have had a good talk or even a good cry with a close friend.

3. My children are aware of what's going on and are frightened that we might be next. What should I tell them?

What your children want to know is that they are safe and protected. Remind them of this, and consider making them aware of plans your family may have to react in the event of disaster. Consider preparing a kit if you don't have one already, and involve them in the process so that they will feel more secure.

Dr. McMillan and Hamilton

4. I want to make a difference in Haiti even in some small way, but money is tight, and I want my children to learn about compassion and charity. What's the best way to go about donating?

Generosity is an attitude that becomes a behavior. Donate your time as a family to local relief efforts in your community. Participating as a family reinforces this character trait as a family value. Your local school or place of worship is a good place to start.

5. My children are acting out as a result of the images they have seen, and as a result of my own palpable internal tension. How can I get them through this tense time?

Our children are mirrors of our inner thoughts and feelings. It is best to acknowledge your feelings and concerns with your children at the level appropriate for their age and stage of emotional development. By putting words to your unspoken anxiety, you actually are controlling, in a purposeful way, your own stress response. Your children will perceive your thinking state of mind versus a fearful one, and that will be comforting to them. Physical play, natural sunlight, healthy balanced meals, and times of quiet reading or music will be helpful to the entire family. All of these activities are good antidotes to stress and anxiety.

How are YOU coping with this tragedy? Comment below.

next: Our Life Is a Reality Show ... Again
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