Dealing with stress necessary after a disaster

COLLEGE STATION – Evacuation, displacement, lack of utilities and communication, destruction of personal property and losses of other kinds – stress naturally follows disasters such as Hurricane Ike.

It is only normal to be stressed after such an interruption in one’s life, said Dr. Rick Peterson, Texas AgriLife Extension Service family life specialist.

“It is like your equilibrium has been knocked off and it will take some time to regain your balance,” Peterson said. “Recovery from such an event depends upon how you and your community were impacted.

“The greater the loss and destruction, the greater the psycho-social issues families will face,” he said. “For some it will take longer to fully recover than others. A first step is to accept the loss, feel the emotional pain of that loss and try to move forward. Talk about it with family and friends and take one day at a time.”

Important to the process of recovery is recognition of the different disaster stages as well as their accompanying stressors and responses that go with each stage, Peterson said. The four stages are heroic, honeymoon, disillusionment and reconstruction.

The heroic stage involves disaster survival and evacuation, accompanied by raised anxiety and stress, he said. This stage covers much of the period when there is rescue and recovery immediately after the event.

The honeymoon phase occurs weeks to months following a disaster when formal governmental and volunteer assistance may be readily available, Peterson said. The community bonds together as a result of sharing the catastrophic experience and the giving and receiving of community support.

“Disaster survivors may experience a short-lived sense of optimism that the help they will receive will make them whole again,” he said. “Families are looking at what they need to do to get their homes livable again and their lives back on track.”

The disillusionment phase can come in the next several weeks and lasts up to two years or more, he said. The emotions in this phase could include a strong sense of disappointment, anger and resentment toward how things are moving or not moving.

“The last phase is reconstruction, in which physical property and recovery of emotional well-being occur and may continue for years following the disaster,” Peterson said. “Survivors for the most part have assumed responsibility for their own recovery and reaffirm belief in themselves and their community.”

However, if recovery efforts are delayed, emotional problems can occur or linger, he said.

“When you talk about a disaster, you want to talk about vulnerable populations, which are the elderly and children, as well as people who have a wide range of disabilities,” Peterson said.

Children have little past experience to draw upon related to dealing with evacuation or a hurricane, he said. They have little understanding of the cause and effect of the event.

“Often times when children experience a trauma, they can’t express what they are feeling, so they may regress in their behavior,” Peterson said. “This is a normal process of stress. But if it continues over time, parents might need to find additional support or outside help to address the problem.”

Young children in particular need lots of verbal and physical assurance, he said.

“Get them back into a normal routine of breakfast, naps and play time, because we know children do best when they have some kind of structure,” Peterson said.

Be cognizant of how both adults and children are reacting to loss, whether that is loss of a house, a person, a pet or, in the case of children, a favorite toy, he said. They have to be given an opportunity to express their feelings, and that may include reenactment of the event.

Children ages six to 11 will understand the permanence of that loss and may express some anger or guilt about it, Peterson said. They may also take on some of the blame.

Some children may try to avoid going back to school after the community starts to rebuild, he said. They may have increased anti-social behavior, acting out more aggression.

The elderly may have transfer trauma, where the latest hurricane is just one more blow in a long series of traumas.

“This is where family really becomes important,” Peterson said. “They have to make sure they check in with the elderly to see they are getting what they need physically and emotionally in the process.”

In all groups, stress symptoms are normal, he said. But for some, longer-term problems may occur such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or prolonged grief, especially if they lost a loved one or their home and all its belongings.

Watch for signs of depression: persistent sad or irritable mood, loss of interest in activities once enjoyed, significant change in appetite or body weight, difficulty sleeping or oversleeping, loss of energy, feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate guilt, difficulty concentrating, recurrent thoughts of death or suicide, Peterson advised.

“If you suspect they are having difficulties, they should be evaluated by a qualified mental health professional,” he said.

“People need to know there are effective treatments for both high levels of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Peterson’s suggestion for those feeling stressed due to Hurricane Ike or other disasters is to start alleviating the feeling by talking to family and friends about what happened and what is going on in their lives.

“As helpers, we need to be able to normalize what is going on for them - the fear, anxiety, stress, grief and sadness, as well as frustration and angry feelings they have,” he said. “But if those reactions don’t get better over a period of time, we need to help them out.”

The next step will be to find someone who can effectively work with them and their feelings, such as a clergyman or counselor.

More information on emotional and practical aspects of working through a disaster can be found in English and Spanish at http://texashelp.tamu.edu or http://agrilifebookstore.org .

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