06 November 2012
The winds have blown and the waters have surged and the power lines have fallen and now we must brace for more fallout from Sandy: the psychological repercussions of disaster.
Studies of Hurricane Katrina to the attack on the World Trade Center to the Alaska earthquake have shown us that the wounds we face are not all physical or easily cured with gauze and antibiotics. The emotional trials move through specific stages.
Research has told us that recognizing the psychological elements of our recovery, along with re-building homes and infrastructure, can ease the pain of the coming weeks, months, even years. Past disasters give us a clue of what’s to come.
First we faced the stress of the early stages: warning, details of threat, denial and eventually impact. Then stages of inventory follow the impact, as people assess the loses and survivors express gratitude. The gratefulness of surviving is more powerful than regret over property losses.
Survivors focus on family. Yet some find their focus fragmented. False rumors can circulate. (After the Alaska earthquake, reports said 100, 300, 1000 died. The actual number was 7.) Some people may suffer disaster syndrome, where they become withdrawn and aimless. Those who keep a tight rein on their emotions may be especially vulnerable.
Not all of us in New Jersey are living through the same stages. Hurricane Sandy did not strike us all equally. The person who lost his or her home or, worse, a loved one, is not ready to talk about the stages of recovery.
But there is much we can do to minimize the stress we face after our normal lives have been upended. First we must do all we can to restore order and norms. Then we should recognize that the psychological stress of disaster recovery is very real and find healthful ways to bring normality back into our lives.
- Do something that you value and that has been part of your life. Go running or to the gym. Read a book. Go to church or temple. See a movie. Prepare a favorite meal.
- Try to encourage your teenagers to talk about what they have experienced. Let them do normal teenage activities, such as text their friends or play a video game.
- Don’t let a crisis allow you to fall back to bad habits that make you feel worse about yourself, like overeating or excessive drinking.
- Don’t suffer alone. Talk to friends, family, social workers, co-workers.
- Remember that young children will be OK if they believe their parents are OK, even if they no longer are in their own homes.
- We should not neglect our disaster responders. They need to understand that the “highs” of being useful may be followed with “hollow” feelings when they are no longer needed. These responders should know the people they are helping may try to re-exert control of their lives and resent the disaster workers around them.
Because of my background in crisis intervention and disaster psychology I was part of a FEMA team that educated rescue workers around the nation about the psychological impact of disasters. I worked with relief workers and clergy after Katrina and 9-11. The lessons we learned after those crises will help us with Sandy as we struggle to reclaim our lives.
Shortly after Sandy struck, and still without power, Diane and I refused to cancel our annual Halloween party, a fixture in our neighborhood. We believed the normal routine would be helpful. It was. People were so thankful and eager to hug each other and share their stories. In our post-Sandy world we must cling to what keeps us grounded.