Blog Post from Dr. Steve Dunleavey

Lessons from Panama City

I can still remember the look of shock and disbelief in their faces. My heart sank as I listened to story after story of natural disaster and devastation. By the time we arrived, Hurricane Michael had long since receded, but its aftershocks were still felt by all who experienced its torrent. Loss had taken more than the eye could see. 

When crisis hits us, things that we take for granted, like a sense of safety and control, are washed away in its wake. Recently an Emerge team of counselors and I had the privilege of working with pastors in Panama City, which experienced the biggest effects of this hurricane, and we learned some things from them that I believe can help us in what our country is experiencing now. 

In Panama City, we heard about the powerful impact the change in landscape had on their sense of hope and peace. The forests that were now gone and the blue tarp-covered roofs served as a reminder of what had been lost when the winds blew, and the waters rose. In this current Covid-19 pandemic crisis, we need to realize that there is a natural toll that being isolated in our homes with a change in routine and environment will take on us. Not to mention being unable to touch, hug, or come within six feet of our fellow human beings. It is natural for changes such as these to have an impact on our sense of well-being and can bring feelings of fear and loss of control. 

Loss rarely enters our lives without revealing other unresolved challenges. Fifteen months after the hurricane, many of the people in Panama City didn’t talk about the hurricane directly. Instead, they spoke about past losses the current crisis reminded them of or of feared future events. During times of crisis, our brains naturally attempt to anchor us in the past or in the future to help us resolve what was lost at an even deeper level or to prepare us for an imagined fearful future. Both are natural processes, but often make us feel more out of control.

 4 Coping Tools for Today…and Everyday

Here are some of the practices our team shared with those devastated by a hurricane in Florida. They are also powerful helps for all of us facing the uncertainties of the current pandemic crisis:

1) The Comfort of Ritual & Routine — During this time of more separation, it will become even more important to keep your routines as similar as you can to maintain some semblance of normalcy. Also, spend time with your family in simple activities that build connection, such as board games, sharing funny family stories, or taking a walk together outside. Use this time to rebuild connection that may have become strained by the busyness of life.  

 2) The Practice of Peace — When our brains are consumed with what was or what will be, we are existing in a time frame God has not designed for us. One way we can connect our brains to the present is through practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness is simply focused attention on what is happening right now. The reason mindfulness brings a sense of peace is because the present moment is the only time frame God has given us some control over and the only place we find the healing whispers of our Heavenly Father. He only speaks in the sanctity of the present moment. Mindfulness counteracts our brains’ natural tendencies and deep breathing gives us something to focus on while our body receives more of the oxygen it needs to become calmed. 

You can try it now…breath in through your nose to a slow count of 3, hold your breath for a count of two, and breathe out through your mouth to a count of 4. While you’re doing this, point your attention to what it feels like to have the breath enter your lungs and your chest expand. What does it sound like when oxygen enters and exits your lungs? Do you hear your heart beating? This is a reminder of the life God gave you as a gift. All of this is an example of the simple practice of mindfulness and research shows that 20 minutes of mindfulness practice each day is effective in reducing anxiety and depression. 

3) The Power of Community — Don’t neglect the powerful healing influence of a healthy community. Isolation is a strong temptation in crisis and grief, but we were created to naturally reach out when we need to feel safety and security. All of us did this as babies. The problem for most of us is that much of our pain has been caused in the context of unhealthy community. We need to find and develop healthy community even in the midst of uncertain times, even if the only way we can do so is over social networking platforms and videoconferencing. 

We were created to heal and exist in community. In the midst of crisis, a healthy community is a nonjudgmental group of people who feel no need to fix us or control us to meet their own needs. They simply listen and witness our pain without trying to make it go away. Their only focus is to help us feel less alone. The place to start is within yourself. Start by being that kind of healthy community for those around you and then find likeminded people you can trust. In Panama City, we noticed that those who weathered the storm best were those who reached out for mutual support during their crisis and the same can hold true for each of us.  

4) Don’t Forget to Remember! — Although we don’t want to stay locked in the past, sometimes hope requires a rearview mirror. During times of crisis, we need to remember that every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Grief and crisis often cause us to get stuck in the middle and believe that the middle will last forever. We need to remind ourselves of the times when God has come through for us in the past. This helps us remember that He has always been with us through “the fire” and was faithful to bring us to the other side. He’s been faithful to bring our suffering to an end. I remember the amazing hope that arose in the hearts of those courageous souls we ministered to in Panama City who were still in the “middle” as they rehearsed God’s faithfulness in the past. Reminding ourselves of who God was, helps us to remember who God still is; that he is not only the God of the beginning, but He’s with us in the middle, and He will always bring us through to the end.   


Dr. Stephen WJ Dunleavey, MA, LPCC-S

Director of Clinical Services

Dr. Steve Dunleavey comes to Emerge Counseling with 15 years of experience in Christian counseling and six years in pastoral ministry. Over the years, he has served with us as an independently licensed counseling supervisor, the Director of Education, and in 2016 was promoted to the position of Director of Clinical Services. However, his most cherished roles in life are that of husband to Kristen, and father to his twins, Cooper and Finley.

In his professional role, Steve is passionate about relational leadership and integrating Biblical and theological truth with sound psychological principles to help people truly heal and experience the abundant life and freedom that Jesus promised. It is this passion that guides his leadership of the clinical team at Emerge Counseling.

Steve has a DMin in Biblical Counseling, an MA in Clinical Pastoral Counseling, which led to LPCC licensure in Ohio, and a BA in Biblical Studies and Pastoral Ministries. He leads marriage retreats and seminars on various topics, is on the Executive Leadership Team, and is a Counselor Training Supervisor at Emerge Counseling. He has also been an Adjunct Professor at Ashland Theological Seminary in their Practical Theology and Mental Health Counseling departments for the past 15 years.