Dr Sarb Johal
is a clinical psychologist with over 30 years of experience under his belt. A specialist in disaster management and emergency psychology, Dr Sarb has advised the UK and New Zealand governments and the World Health Organisation through some of the major public health and crises of this century.
With communities around Aotearoa still reeling from the devastating Cyclone Gabrielle and other severe weather events, we couldn’t think of anyone better for a kōrero about how we can look after ourselves and our loved ones as we tackle this challenging period ahead.
It’s been several weeks since the January floods and Cyclone Gabrielle ravaged many parts of the North Island. For those who have been impacted, the initial shock or denial will likely be fading by now. Can you describe some of the emotions people might be experiencing now?
Dr Sarb: In his book The Developing Mind, Dan Siegel describes how everyone has a range of intensities of emotional experience they can comfortably process. This is the ‘window of tolerance’
, and it varies widely. For some, this window is wide: they can feel reasonably comfortable even when experiencing high levels of emotional intensity. This allows them to think, feel, and behave flexibly, even when going through extreme experiences.
We do best in challenging circumstances, like the January floods and Cyclone Gabrielle, when our window of tolerance stays wide. This means we’ve had enough experience coping with past events, are well-practised at regulating our emotions, and haven’t experienced too much trauma previously in our lives. We can think calmly, even when chaos surrounds us, without feeling overwhelmed or withdrawn.
What if somebody goes above their ‘window of tolerance’?
Dr Sarb: People have been talking about the adrenaline that has taken them through the first few days of the response after the Cyclone passed. Going beyond the window of tolerance, commonly brings excessive energy, but also agitation. We can become alert to and deal with threats, but it can also leave us feeling anxious, irritable or angry. We can feel out of control, overwhelmed, or distrusting of others.
What does going below our ‘window of tolerance’ look like?
Dr Sarb: We can feel numb and want to withdraw and isolate ourselves from others. We can also feel foggy-headed, exhausted, flat, powerless, hopeless and helpless.
It’s useful to remember we may also become quite cut off from our own emotions and bodily sensations. This may be a way of detaching from what is a genuine threat – in this case, the daunting tasks that faces those who have been affected by these traumatic weather events.