A Lesson From Mexico On How To Cope With Tragedies

Victor Castañeda, a volunteer during Mexico's earthquake rescue operations, hands out to physiotherapist Maribel Tena a drawing he made during a relief session with her.
Rodrigo Cervantes
By Rodrigo Cervantes
October 09, 2017

MEXICO CITY.- Shootings, earthquakes, hurricanes, fires - all of these catastrophic experiences affect many in the world. In Mexico City, where a massive quake killed hundreds, plenty of people are trying to move on, learning to cope emotionally with tragedies.

Víctor Castañeda is one of them. He is an attorney in Mexico City, and was among thousands of volunteers after the Sept. 19 earthquake.

“It’s tough. It’s a very rough experience. I was walking by, when I started to hear all the screaming and people running in all directions,” Castañeda said.

Castañeda has been helping in the damaged areas since then. He feels sad, and even angry and frustrated for not being able to save more lives.

“I think that all of us who happened to be in Mexico City during the tragedy, or the earthquake hit us, need some kind of support. External support from professional people,” he said.

Many people can identify with Castañeda, not only in Mexico City, but in places where catastrophes just happened, like Houston, Puerto Rico or Las Vegas - or anywhere else, as we are constantly exposed to tragic information.

Self-Awareness As Relief

In Mexico City, psychologists, therapists and other professionals have been offering free support to those affected directly or indirectly by the earthquake. One of them is Maribel Tena.

A water fountain induces a relaxing state at Tena’s exercise room. She is a physiotherapist who specializes in the Feldenkrais method.

"If you create a process for people to understand the cognitive and organic, the experiences they lived though the earthquake, you can build the elements needed so that they can self-generate their capacity for self-regulation and become self-reliant," Tena said.

Tena said she teaches her groups to develop their own capacities to self-regulate, becoming able to leave traumas behind and be ready for the unexpected.

She recalled having helped survivors from collapsed buildings. In such cases, Tena said it’s important to realize the capacities we have to free ourselves, not only from the rubble, but from traumatic experiences.

“I teach each person to solve their situation from where they stand. If we learn to solve the organic trauma, we will gain better capacities, even as a specie, because in the end those mechanisms are what have kept us alive,” Tena said.

The group class provided by Tena includes breathing and stretching techniques. She also uses free drawing and even an old Disney cartoon that explains the origins of stress.

At one of the sessions, Castañeda lies on the floor with his eyes closed, and slowly nods his head, following Tena’s instructions.

“What sensations do you experience?,” Tena asked. And Castañeda replied he feels peacefulness.

Tena guides the entire group through exercises like this, and they may be replicated at home. She said they soothe, while helping find your own mind and body balance.

Tena said that events, such as the quake in Mexico City or the mass shooting in Las Vegas, naturally make us think of what we want as individuals and as a society. And if we help ourselves first, we will be able to help others, she said.

Eat, Reflect, Move On

“It’s nice that people can realize that they can help themselves if they know more about themselves,” said Tena’s daughter, Nidia Mercado.

Mercado is a nutritionist who occasionally collaborates with her mom. She said that after any upsetting event, it is always important to eat, but to be mindful of having the right amount and quality.

“Eat more healthy, eat more fruits and vegetables so they can relax your nervous system; eat things with Omega 3 and vitamins from the B group, as they can help, too,” Mercado said.

And after the session, Castañeda said he feels really good and very relieved.

“I think the session was very effective and generated certain self awareness of what happened," he said.

Castañeda suggests anyone who has been under similar stressful circumstances take time to pause and reflect on what happened in order to give value to our existence.

“We are very fortunate to be alive, and we need to continue… move on,” Castañeda said.