In the wake of the hurricane that left our neighborhoods devastated, we may look around at our homes, our neighbors’ homes, and feel like the world has irrevocably changed. A natural disaster of this magnitude may trigger a range of emotional reactions in people of all ages. While some of us may be annoyed because we can’t get a wifi connection, others may be losing hope that there will be any kind of normalcy in the future. Why do some people seem to coast along throughout the aftermath of the hurricane while others feel shattered and unable to start over? There is a range of normal reactions to stress, and many factors that influence our ability to cope.
When faced with an overwhelming source of stress, the human mind tends toward a fight/flight/freeze reaction. We are often equipped with an adrenaline rush designed to help us survive. This survival instinct can serve to help us cope with disaster, clean up our homes, manage our families, call insurance companies, gather food and resources, and support our loved ones. Eventually, the adrenaline rush wears off and we may be left with some emotional and physical symptoms of trauma. Some common reactions to natural disasters include:
- Flashbacks or intrusive thoughts about the disaster
- A sense of helplessness or hopelessness
- Heightened physical arousal such as difficulty sleeping, angry outbursts, problems concentrating or startle reactions to stimuli such as noises
- Onset or exacerbation of phobias or anxiety
- Avoidance of anything that reminds one of the disaster, or refusal to acknowledge or deal with the disaster.
- Regressive behavior- acting younger than one’s chronological age. Children may start bedwetting, seeking a teddy bear or blanky, or speaking in baby language.
- Shyness in children who are usually outgoing
- Behavioral problems
- Difficulty with separation
- Somatic complaints: stomachaches, headaches, etc.
These are just some of the many ways that traumatic experiences may affect victims following an event such as a natural disaster. Most of these reactions are normal and are not a cause for worry. Any of the above reactions can become a problem when they interfere with normal functioning at work/school, or in one’s social life. For instance, feeling a sense of helplessness and suffering anxiety can be a natural reaction to stress. However, when that helplessness and anxiety stops one from communicating with his spouse, or causes him to be short tempered with his children, this becomes an unhealthy reaction. If a child complains of a headache prior to going back to school, this can be a normal reaction. However, if the headache has no medical basis and becomes a chronic problem preventing him/her from attending school, then it may be an unhealthy reaction to the stressful event. An experienced mental health professional can help determine whether one is suffering from PTSD- posttraumatic stress disorder- a condition that can be treated with scientific, evidence-based therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
Risk factors for PTSD:
Years of trauma research show that while PTSD can affect anyone, there are certain factors that can make some people more vulnerable to developing posttraumatic stress disorder. These include:
- A major life event in the 9 months preceding the natural disaster (death in the family, marriage, divorce, a big move)
- Past emotional difficulties such as anxiety or depression
- Rigid belief systems: that is, the tendency to have set ideas about how the world, ourselves and others ‘should’ be, and difficulty adapting when the world does not meet those expectations.
- Avoidant tendencies: that is, the tendency to avoid dealing with problems. (“it’ll work itself out” or “I will take care of it later”)
Some tips for coping with trauma and preventing the onset of PTSD:
Seek Support: Perhaps the most critical determination of how one will process the effects of a natural disaster is the amount of social support one obtains. If you have someone who can listen to you, take the time to talk about how you were affected by the hurricane. Whether you lived with no electricity, were forced out of your comfort zone and had to accept help from strangers, lost your possessions, or were a volunteer helping others, it is important that you express what you experienced. Research shows that every time one talks about a traumatic event the brain has a chance to reprocess what happened; taking an event of significant magnitude and breaking it down into manageable proportions. If it is difficult to talk, writing and drawing can also be effective ways to express your experience.
Take care of yourself: Make sure to get adequate sleep and nutrition as much as possible. When we are tired and/or hungry it becomes harder to deal with difficult situations. This is true despite how tempting it might be to work long hours to correct problems related to the traumatic event.
Encourage healthy coping in children: First, try to maintain consistent rules for children. Keep rules consistent with rules that existed before the hurricane hit. For instance, if your child is usually required to eat his vegetables, then he should still have to follow that rule even though there has been a hurricane. Same goes for brushing teeth, not fighting with siblings, and helping to unpack groceries. The reason for this is that children may already feel like their world is dramatically different, or like the hurricane has changed everything. Simple and consistent household rules can help reassure them that the world will retain a sense of order. Second, encourage children to express their thoughts and feelings about the hurricane and how they were affected by it. Help them talk about their experiences. Validate their feelings, no matter how trivial the feelings seem. (“I know it’s annoying when you can’t charge your iPod.” “It’s ok to feel angry that your playroom was flooded”). Third, maintain family routines as much as possible such as bedtime songs or stories.
There is no need to suffer the emotional effects of Hurricane Sandy alone. If you or a loved one is finding it difficult to cope, please seek help from an experienced mental health professional. The sooner you seek help, the easier it will be to heal.
South Shore Cognitive Therapy is available to assist the community during this time. If you need help due to Hurricane Sandy, or if you are unsure whether you are managing the stress in a healthy manner, please call our office to schedule a consultation free of charge. During this session, a trauma specialist experienced in working with children and adults will perform a brief assessment and discuss practical techniques for effectively managing the stress in this time of crises.
South Shore Cognitive Therapy (SSCT) uses the latest scientific and evidence-based cognitive and behavioral treatments to alleviate emotional problems. Our experienced clinicians offer intensive and customized treatment plans that enable our clients to maintain a high level of personal control throughout the treatment process. Jonathan Cohen, PsyD is the director of SSCT and has advanced training in evidenced-based therapies for emotional and behavioral disorders. Sara Schwartz-Gluck, LCSW is a trauma specialist who has treated adult and child survivors of trauma throughout NY and NJ.
Phone # 516-568-7493