Natural disasters and their increasing destructiveness are becoming a part of the American landscape. Leaving scars, not only on the land and the livelihoods of those affected but leaving scars on the psyches of the survivors as well. One only needs to look back at New Orleans and more recently to the mid-west for recent examples. More than ever, we need a greater understanding on how to cope with natural disasters both large and small.
On January, 16, 1994, I was settled into a deep sleep, comfortable in my bed and safe in my home when suddenly, at 4 AM, the ground began to shake fiercely. I missed the initial shaking lost in my slumber. Suddenly, I awaken to a horrible grinding and growling coming from every direction of my bedroom. The ground is moving violently and I hang on for dear life to a bed that is trying to throw me off. Things are crashing all around me. My thoughts began to race uncontrollably, “Don’t let go, just don’t let go.” “Oh God, what is happening?”
Flashes of blue light from exploding transformers illuminate the room with rapid brilliance then fade through the curtains of my bedroom window. Things keep crashing to the ground; floor boards and wall studs creak and moan threateningly as the angry earth throws my home in its fit of rage. “Will it hold?” I’m frightened it won’t. It feels as if the world is coming to an end. Its fury is a monster released upon my home and me and it’s out to destroy us both. No time to think, just hold onto the bed, just hold on.
Then, as suddenly as it began, it stopped. Only the sound of car alarms echoing from within the blackness of the skyline can be heard off in the distance. One by one, they too become silent; then nothing. No sound, no light, just an ear crushing silence blanketing the night on a devastated landscape.
House to house my neighbors and I begin knocking on doors; “Is everybody alright?” can be heard echoing in the night up and down the street. Children put in cars, injured attended to; neighbors who have never before spoken to each other standing shoulder to shoulder helping one another.
When we have done what we can, we gather together in the street dazed and shocked. We come together to admire the now visible Milky Way whose brilliance, for the first time, can be seen from our street in the absolute darkness. Like a silent sentry it stands above us giving comfort in the stillness as we wait for the approaching daylight and the dawn of an unknown future.
Earthquakes, floods, terrorist attacks and all other disasters, natural or manmade, can be devastating on our sense of self and sense of safety. We are aware that, in Southern California, we live in an earthquake prone area. However, their lack of predictable activity and the long lag times between them can lull us into complacency. The same can be said for terrorist attacks as well.
We must live with an underlying, and reasonable, anxiety that a major disaster could happen. However, people are very adaptable by nature and in order to live with this chronic anxiety, we learn to turn it off. Over time, we become less responsive to the anxiety signals that are intended to protect us from danger.
This is the fight/flight response and we need to dull it to go on with life in a normal way. A good example of this can be observed in modern Israel where terrorist attacks have become a way of life. Yes, they are tragic, but people adapt and life goes on around them. We are designed, as human beings, to do this. We are very adaptable, so we are adapting to our environment of anxiety by turning it off. An unfortunate consequence of this natural adaptation is to not fully prepare for the possible crisis.
After a disaster hits, we feel disbelief and shock. We can become disoriented, have difficulty making decisions and experience feelings of anxious and moodiness. Often, people will feel apathy and emotional numbing accompanied by depression and reoccurring thoughts about the event. Insomnia and nightmares are also common. These are all signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
The two strongest factors influencing and individual’s recovery from PTSD are the intensity of the life stressors that were occurring before the trauma and the social support network they have with others. Negative social support, such as family members’ critical comments about the length of time taken for recovery, can make a victim’s recovery time drag on even longer.
A trauma victim must start dealing with his or her feelings immediately after the event, or they can become harmful to their mental and physical health. Here are some tips for handling those feelings. Talk about the event as much as you want by sharing your feelings with those who are willing to listen. Spend more time with friends and family. Make sure to care for yourself by getting enough rest, exercise and proper nutrition.
As you are able, return to as normal of a routine as possible. Meaning, if possible, eat meals at the usual time, go to bed at the usual time, etc. Ask for help when you need it. Don’t try to cope by yourself. Receiving help is not a sign of weakness. Help others. This can be a wonderful way of regaining a personal sense of fulfillment and empowerment during a time when personal power appears to have been stripped from us at a moment’s notice.
Allow children to be more dependent than usual. Often, children and adolescents will temporarily regress to acting younger than their age. Allow this to occur without shaming them. And of course, avoid drugs and excessive drinking. They can ultimately compound the stress by creating additional problems during a time of crisis.
It is common for people to not feel the symptoms of PTSD until after the adrenalin rush of the initial shock has worn off. It can take from days to months for this to occur. This is why some people behave as strong, steady, clearheaded heroes during the initial experience of a trauma and end up depressed or suffering nightmares after the event has passed.
Given the horror of a disaster, there is also opportunity for personal growth. A disaster can “shake” us out of our old patterns of thinking by allowing us an opportunity to view our selves and lives differently. By helping others, we meet the real self that lies beneath the surface of our once complacent exterior. And, like the Milky Way, it is often best revealed in the darkest of moments.
Log onto LAtherapist.com for more information on PTSD, stress and anxiety. Take a free personality quiz to see how you respond to stress. Log onto Stress Relief & Deep Sleep, or Tension Relief for free samples of anxiety and tension relief downloads.
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