Storms and Mental Health
Mary1 had a history of mood swings, depression, anxiety, and PTSD from childhood sexual abuse. Her years growing up were in a chaotic and disruptive home, especially after her alcoholic father deserted her and her mother. She had experienced a hard time growing up with parental neglect, physical, and emotional abuse. Her post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) returned after the hurricane with a vengeance.
Mary’s life felt like a continuing hurricane, with a storm of swirling negative thoughts and emotions, worse at night, contributing to nightmares and poor sleep. She felt despondent and had suicidal thoughts about taking her own life to escape the torment. There was a loss of pleasure in doing usual activities and a feeling of hopelessness and isolation from others.
After the hurricane, sessions with a counselor trained in trauma work helped her gain insight and relief. Mary experienced profound insights into her early life’s trauma and the subsequent difficulties she had experienced. A better perspective emerged of a robust and resilient self and competence to move on. She saw the possibilities in herself and others for choices, compassion, acceptance, and transformation. There was the realization of being a survivor of a destructive hurricane and of the devastating internal storm of agitation and anxiety that had affected her at all levels—body, mind, and spirit. Mary gradually built a more sustainable healing and recovery program with a nurturing support network.
The hurricane had dismantled Mary’s tightly held limiting beliefs and attitudes. The great storm, literally and figuratively, swept away non-essential mental and emotional debris, leaving her open to more remarkable inner change, redemption, and transformation. In the past, her life was a repetition of painful cycles, driven by addiction, mood disturbance, trauma memories, and self-destructive choices. Now there was hope and a sense of a new beginning.
Extremes challenge the strengths of anyone, will expose vulnerabilities, whether to infectious pandemics, hurricanes, or wildfires. A catastrophe of any sort can cause massive destruction of property, the economy, displacement, and disruptions of lives. The resulting trauma and loss can lead to mood and other psychological difficulties (click here to read more).
The full impact of traumatic experiences forces people and communities into survival mode, often with damaging aftermaths. The recovery process, and the rebuilding of the personal self or property, begins as the crisis events pass. The aftermath of a crisis is a time of healing, reflection, self-assessment, new perspective-taking, and personal and community transformation.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, climate-change-related hurricanes, or other catastrophic events, individuals who encounter unexpected loss and stressful experiences can have immediate or future difficulties. Associated with the trauma and loss are emotional pain, depression, and post-traumatic stress symptoms. Mary’s story highlights the challenging and sometimes treacherous journey from despair and loss to healing and recovery.
The eye of a hurricane is an area of calm in the middle of the storm’s activity. Even when experiencing periods of wellbeing, stability, peacefulness, and spiritual reprieve, a person can still be affected by unresolved early-life disruptions or trauma. Mary had dark forebodings that she would relapse back into the devastating experience of depression, PTSD, and drug addiction—relapsing into the fury of her internal mental storm. Unresolved issues, traumas, worries, fearful thinking, feelings of vulnerability, or lack of resources can contribute to emotional difficulties, mainly when a new overwhelming experience occurs. Seeking help, therapy, and treatment can become essential and critical in returning to healthy functioning and sometimes for survival. For healing and recovery to begin, there is the need first to find calm and peacefulness from worry, fear, and agitation.
The mandala, from the art of the East, appears like a storm or hurricane, with an eye or center. The bands of a hurricane, or the mandala rings, can represent the layers of mental or emotional contraction, turmoil, or suffering, which arise or culminate out of a calm originating center of all potentiality and serenity. The ancient yogis described the eternal peaceful center as “Satchidananda,” realm of enlightenment: being, consciousness, bliss, happiness, and truth.
The center of the mandala with its outer concentric rings can be envisioned as a place of integration, calm, healing, enlightenment, and transformation—as the peaceful center of the swirling hurricane with its turbulent outer bands. An essential part of the healing journey begins in moments of freedom from emotional agitation. Gradually, as part of the healing journey, there are more extended periods of being calm and centered. Greater ease becomes possible for accessing one’s inner serenity place with enlightened awareness and peacefulness.
The way of survival or healing is the internal journey back to the sanctuary, spiritual connection, and respite. A movement towards the center is in the direction of healing, serenity, and enlightenment from any location in the concentric rings or outer layers of human experiences. One must survive the outward destructive storm and get to safety: then healing and recovery can begin. A peaceful center of calm is always available and present, even while the busy mental activity and life’s demands are happening, much as a wave in a surging sea is forever a part of the ocean. Access remains open with awareness, acceptance, compassion, and love.
CLIMATE CHANGE, GLOBAL WARMING, AND STORMS
Scientists have tied the very destructive storms and more devastating hurricanes to global warming. An interesting parallel story can be drawn with what happens internally to human emotions and the mind. As noted in Mary’s report above, increasing agitation, conflict, and worry become like an internal destructive storm. When there is the added fuel or triggers from adverse life or interpersonal events, things “heat up” until there is a blow-up, meltdown, or breakdown. If there is too much damage, scarring, or destruction, recovery may be challenging. So, the aftermath of excessive trauma, overload, conflict, agitation, and anxiety can overpower one’s capacity to adapt, function, or survive.
The body itself can be overwhelmed by the “storm” of too much stress from the lack of mental and physical health care, nutrition, exercise, rest; and spiritual attunement. The resulting breakdown or deterioration in health can often be preventable or reversible with a holistic approach to health and wellbeing2,3.
SLEEP AND RECOVERY
Discovering the calm hurricane center is like the depressed person dropping into a place of quiet, peacefulness, and rejuvenation. The peaceful center is free of busy mental activity and agitation. The three stages of sleep are comparable to the journey toward the serene center of consciousness. The center of the hurricane, or the inner peace sought by the depressed person, resembles the third stage of sleep4:
1. The awake state is where the mind is engaged in its alert, reasoning, worrying, or agitated modes.
2. The dream stage of sleep is where there is less focus and ties to mental or physical reality. A person gets some rest in dream sleep. When agitated or disturbing, dream time is a poor rest experience—as seen in the trauma-related nightmares of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
3. The deep sleep stage is where a person returns to a peaceful, restorative, and recuperative state—waking to feel refreshed and revitalized. It is akin to discovering the calm hurricane center.
The mind often falls short in its attempts to explain the very abstract ideas or concepts of love, beauty, spirituality, serenity, the universe, or infinity. The state of pure awareness or heightened consciousness is a movement beyond more literal constricted definitions and narrow contexts. The shift is to the realm of an abstract, open-mindedness, moving from the known and knowable to the unknown and unexplainable—beyond names and definitions—where science is only now exploring this uncharted territory. What that is, or what we are, goes beyond finite description or words. Rupert Spira5 relates that the spiritual center is a permanently existing presence and consciousness we continuously have. He likens it to watching a movie on a screen: the screen is always there, yet one becomes unaware of it as the attending mind only sees the drama.
As in a dream, we become both the dream and dream character, losing awareness of who we are. The famous spiritual classic, I Am That, by Nisargadatta, one of India’s great modern sages, brings his audience to a clearer understanding of the mind, being, and existence6. David Hawkins, MD, explains different consciousness levels—reflecting the limitations, conflicts, struggles, and suffering because of limiting mind-ego and linear, literal thinking in a narrow context. The realization or enlightenment to truth becomes paramount to moving out of the containment, struggle, or entrapment of lower levels of ignorance, non-truth, and misunderstanding7. And for Jean Klein, the root of all desires is the one desire to come home to peace8.
THE OCEAN, PLACE OF WAVES, STORMS, AND HURRICANES
The ocean is a body of water and a metaphor in Eastern thought; it represents the origin of all things and appearances. Spiritual, religious, and Eastern philosophies support the idea of one central infinite creative source—the potential from which all perceived or experienced things originate. The works of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung offer an in-depth examination of the human psyche, spirituality, myths, and symbols such as water and the ocean9,10.
Advanced scientists, mystics, and meditators relate the deeper meaning of the observed and experienced world through different forms of verbal expression or experiential practices.
• In Eastern thought, it is the all-encompassing infinite source, the self, and pure awareness versus the limiting mind-ego, “small self”—an inflexible framework of beliefs, concepts, and perceptions.
• Yoga, is a traditional practice from the East (click here to read more), that involves movement, stretching, holding postures, relaxed breathing, mindfulness, and finally resting quietly in peaceful repose—to directly experience the serenity and a sense of spiritual connectedness.
• Meditation or prayer leads to a place of calm and peacefulness—a sanctuary from the emotional and physical anguish and excessive activation.
• In Western, worldly, or less advanced scientific thought, everything experienced by the perceiving, thinking mind exists only as an actual object or solid matter.
OPENING TO LIFE AND HEALING
For good mental health, the ability to get to the centering moments—the “pauses,” as finding the calm place during a storm—brings respite. The moments of calm can occur between thoughts and activities or after gratification of desire. “Centering” helps people to regain flexibility and balance. There can be a lessening of rigid thinking patterns and intrusive, painful memories. Growing moments of liberation—from disturbing thoughts, images, and beliefs—builds a foundation for recovery. In the hurricane’s aftermath, or post-pandemic, comes the rebuilding process. For healing, more robust integration of mind, body, and spirit needs to occur. A lasting connection with the center of peacefulness, serenity, calm, unity, happiness, and love must become a reality. It creates stability and balance through the potent presence and connection with the tranquil center of consciousness.
• Find the time and ways to balance the self-centered mind’s busyness and goal-oriented “practical” activity with non-attached awareness. Seek the experience of being in the peaceful center of unity-consciousness and connectedness with all that is outside of our separate self and identity. As obstructions or entrapment of the mind dissolve, there is a passage to moments of calm, peacefulness, and harmony.
• Balancing the individual, functioning self with the experience of being one with the moment brings a vastness, such as experiencing a beautiful sunset or a walk in a natural setting—as on a lovely ocean beach with the sun setting or rising—bringing the sense of timeless eternity, rapture, and infinite possibilities.
• Integrative-holistic guidance or mentoring can help facilitate recovery and a return to a healthy integration of mind, body, and spirit. Spiritual emergence-oriented programs recognize that many psychological distress symptoms, or life crises, represent an opening and opportunity for healing at a higher level of experiencing and functioning from a more enlightened awareness and consciousness.
• Using conventional medical or psychiatric labeling, diagnosing, and treatment, like the attention to symptoms, is only a starting point in the journey of healing and discovery. Spiritual emergence approaches use the analogy of the birth process and moving through the birth canal towards light, liberation, life, and integration11. With trained mental health therapists, the therapeutic process enhances rather than blocks the body, mind, and emotions' natural ability and movement toward repairing and healing itself.
• Regular attuning the body with healthy practices is a good beginning, including improving lifestyle, exercise, and diet. Other essentials are everyday practices like meditation, self-reflection, or prayer. Companionship with persons and pets helps get past the individual mind and ego. Join or share with a supportive social network, for the power of recovery is often seen in the twelve-step programs in addiction recovery work12.
All those affected by the recent calamity of natural disasters, such as recent hurricanes, fires, and pandemics, need compassion and help. With the current catastrophic damage to so many people’s lives and possessions, one can help by giving to charity and relief efforts13. Finding positive ways to help those affected with support, guidance, or therapy support is an opportunity to aid those in need.
I appreciate you and your interest. Would you please share this article with others or leave comments below.
Be well and do the best you can on your journey of discovery and learning.
Ron Parks, MD
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1 Mary’s story is not that of an actual person or family, but a fictional composite created from my years of clinical and personal experience to heighten your awareness of the importance of the issues discussed.
3 Meditation, A Mental Health Essential, COVID-19/Mental Health Crises, Ronald R. Parks, MD, ParksPress, March 2021, pages 47-56
4 American Sleep Association (2020). Stages of sleep: The sleep cycle, sleepassociation.org/about-sleep/stages-of-sleep (click here to read more)
5 Spira, Rupert. The Nature of Consciousness: Essays on the Unity of Mind and Matter. Paperback. 1st ed. Oxford: Sahja Publications Oxford, 77
6 Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, 2012, The Acorn Press, Durham, NC; 2nd American edition (revised) (August 8, 2012)
7 Hawkins, David R. Power vs. Force: The Hidden Determinants of Human Behavior. Kindle. Vol. 1. 8 vols. Power vs. Force. Veritas; 1st edition, 2013.
8 Klein, Jean, and Emma Edwards. The Ease of Being. Paperback. United Kingdom: New Sarum Press, 2020.
9 Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth. Paperback. New York, NY: Anchor., 1991. Also see my article: Saltwater Flotation's Therapeutic Journey (click here to read more).
10 Jung, C.G. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Paperback, Revised ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
11 Center for Spiritual Emergence. centerforspiritualemergence.com (click here to read more)
12 Miller, M., MD (February 13, 2015). The relevance of twelve-step recovery in 21st-century addiction medicine, Quality & Science. asam.org/Quality-Science/publications/magazine/read/article/2015/02/13/the-relevance-oftwelve-step-recovery-in-21st-century-addiction-medicine
13 Organizations providing relief assistance: Feeding America: feedingamerica.org; UNICEF USA: unicefusa.org/donate; World Vision, Inc.: worldvision.org; American Red Cross: redcross.org/donate/donation.html