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What's normal right now

My World's on Fire
What's normal right now
By Colleen Hagerty • Issue #38 • View online

Thanks for reading my World’s on Fire, a weekly newsletter about disasters from journalist Colleen Hagerty. If you found this dispatch interesting, I hope you’ll subscribe!
For the past two months, I’ve been working on an article about this week – the one-year mark of Covid-19 changing life as we knew it in the U.S. I spoke with a number of disaster and mental health professionals about how anniversaries like this are approached in those fields of research, and the resulting piece was published in Elementalearlier this week. There are a lot of helpful insights in there about the layered crises of this past year, as well as the uniqueness of the pandemic itself, but there’s one line I keep coming back to from Dr. Betty Lai:
“Sometimes people feel worried that, ‘Oh I’m not having a normal reaction.’ But our research on disaster shows that there isn’t one normal reaction.”
It’s a line I’ve thought about as I found myself pulling away from social media and altering my own news consumption this week, tactics suggested by some of the experts I spoke with including Dr. Mary McNaughton-Cassill. She’s a psychology professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and her name might sound familiar to any early subscribers reading this – she was actually my very first Q&A interview for this newsletter back in June 2020.
Of course, things have changed enormously since then, in ways unpredictable and painfully so, but I think the advice she offered is still incredibly helpful. It pairs well with my Elemental article, providing actionable steps to address any disaster fatigue that might surface in response to this anniversary. Since one of the many ways things have changed since June is that the number of subscribers to this newsletter has more than tripled(!), I decided to reshare that interview with Dr. McNaughton-Cassill below, lightly edited to reflect the current moment (here is the original, if you’re curious or want to look at a photo of my dog). If any of these suggestions prove useful for you, I really hope you’ll give it a share for others to benefit from, too.
Defining disaster fatigue
Disaster fatigue, or compassion fatigue, happens when you are overwhelmed by lots of images, stories, or evidence of bad things happening to people,” Dr. McNaughton-Cassill explained. “When that happens, it can become so disturbing to you that you need a way to escape. 
One route is to disconnect, try to ignore it. Another is to blame the victims, or somehow try to find a way that it’s not really as unfair as it appears. 
And a third way is to get somewhat hopeless. In the distant past, we had ‘fight or flight’ responses – people respond to stress in their environment with a physical action. Now, we’re living in a world where the vast majority of the bad stuff that we see is through the media. It’s not in our own world, it doesn’t affect us directly, and we really feel like we can’t do anything about it. As humans, feeling hopeless is not a good place to be in. It makes people depressed; it makes them anxious.
We’re in a country that does not like to talk about mental illness – there’s still a huge stigma around being vulnerable or reaching out for help. But I think that’s one of the messages we have to give people now, and both talk about it more to make it more normal to be stressed and to seek help, and to be educated on the signs.”
Why the coronavirus crisis has felt different than most disasters
“When a hurricane or a fire hits, the damage is very, very visible. With this virus, for the vast majority of people, there was no impact point. So, it’s very hard for people to continue to think of this as a major crisis when there’s nothing visible to indicate that. You know, you look at your house and your city, and things look normal. 
When you go to a disaster shelter, people are standing there with nothing – they’ve lost their house and their car, but they already feel like the worst is over, and they can already start talking about recovery and moving forward. What’s making people crazy right now is we don’t know if the worst is over and no one knows when recovery starts.” 
How to address your disaster fatigue without tuning out
“When people want to change behavior, there’s a set of steps we have them do. Okay, you feel like the news exposure you’re getting now is upsetting you. You don’t want to necessarily get no information, but the first step would be to create a baseline, keep a little record for a few days. 
  • How often are you looking at the news? 
  • Where are you seeing it?
  • When are you looking at it? 
  • What is your pattern – are you grabbing your phone and hitting the Washington Post several times a day just because you’re bored? 
Doing that often gives you a sense of what’s helpful and what’s not. For example, it probably is good to check in on a trusted news source in the morning to figure out what’s going on. It probably doesn’t help to check back every hour all day.
Once you’ve done that, I tell people to think about what kind of media exposure works for you. For me, I don’t like really graphic visual images, and it’s better to consume my news either by reading articles or listening to the radio.
So, figuring out what kind of source works for you, how often you need it, and then, also, focusing on modification. Set a goal – okay, I’m not gonna check my phone every hour, I’m going to rely on updates in this way instead. Actually become conscious of how to change that behavior.
When we’re talking about disaster fatigue in the sense of people observing disasters through the media, I also often argue that the solution is to take action – you can donate blood or donate food or do something.”
As always…
thank you for reading My World’s on Fire. You can reply to this newsletter to reach me or let me know if you liked it by hitting the little “heart.” This newsletter runs on your support (and lots of coffee), so if you’re in a place to donate, please know it’s very much appreciated.
It also means the world to me when you share it on social media like Kayla Epstein did:
Kayla Epstein 📰
Colleen is amazing at staying in touch with people who survived natural disasters long after the news cycle has moved on.

She spoke with residents of Lake Charles, LA, who had endured two hurricanes last year and now a historic freeze:
Now, here’s a little something for reading to the end.
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