Stress after the storm

For many Americans impacted by Sandy, now being described as a superstorm, yesterday’s presidential election might have been a necessary and helpful psychological break from days of misery.

The images, particularly, those seen on live television, must serve as a vivid reminder to many in Barbados of what we face annually during the Hurricane Season.

Unfortunately for Americans impacted this time around, they live in the north east of the country, where bitter cold is already being felt — compounded by homelessness for those who lost their residences and lack of heat in places were electricity or gas is yet to be restored.

Regardless of the peculiarities of the aftermath of Sandy, it is clear that any such tragedy has the potential to pile on a whole lot of mental pressure on top the physical challenges that are left for so many.

We are not yet out of the woods for 2012 as far as the Hurricane Season is concerned for Barbadians, and the following information from the American Psychology Association could come in handy in the event we suffer a brush from some weather system in the remaining weeks.

Managing traumatic stress: After the hurricane

It is common for people to experience very strong emotional reactions with the arrival of a hurricane and its accompanying damage to homes and community infrastructures… Understanding common responses to extreme events can help you to cope effectively with your feelings, thoughts, and behaviours. Putting into practice some of the tips in this guide can help you along the path to managing a storm’s aftermath and feeling better.

There are a number of steps you can take to help restore emotional wellbeing and a sense of control in the wake of the hurricane or other traumatic experience, including the following:

* Recognise that this is a challenging time but one that you can work to manage. You’ve tackled hardships at other times in your life. Tap into the skills you used to get through past challenges.

* Allow yourself to mourn the losses you have experienced. Recognise that you may experience a variety of emotions and their intensity will likely lessen over time.

* Take a news break. Watching replays of footage from the hurricane can make your stress even greater. Often, the media tries to interest viewers by presenting worst case scenarios. These may not be representative of your home or community.

* Ask for support from people who care about you and who will listen and empathise with your situation. But keep in mind that your typical support system may be weakened if those who are close to you also have experienced or witnessed the hurricane.

* Find ways to express yourself when ready. Communicating your experience through talking with family or close friends, keeping a diary, or other forms of self-expression may be a source of comfort. Find out about local support groups led by appropriately trained and experienced professionals.

Support groups are often available in communities following large-scale disasters. People can experience relief and comfort connecting with other hurricane survivors who have had similar reactions and emotions. These can be especially helpful for people with limited personal support systems.

* Engage in healthy behaviours to enhance your ability to cope with excessive stress. Eat well-balanced meals and get plenty of rest. If you experience difficulties sleeping, you may be able to find some relief through relaxation techniques. Avoid alcohol and drugs since these can increase a sense of depression and/or impede you from doing what is necessary to be resilient and cope with events.

* Establish or reestablish routines such as eating meals at regular times and following an exercise programme. Take some time off from the demands of daily life by pursuing hobbies or other enjoyable activities.

* If possible, avoid major life decisions such as switching jobs because these activities tend to be highly stressful.

How psychologists can help

Individuals with prolonged distress related to a hurricane that disrupt their daily functioning may consult with a trained and experienced mental health professional. Psychologists and other appropriate mental health providers help educate people about normal responses to extreme stress and make a plan for moving forward.

Psychologists can help by providing evidence-based treatments to help people manage their emotions around traumatic events. Most commonly, psychologists use therapy (sometimes referred to as psychotherapy or talk therapy). There are many different styles of therapy, but the psychologist will choose the type that best addresses the person’s problem and best fits the patient’s characteristics and preferences.

For some conditions, therapy and medication are a treatment combination that works best.

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