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The difficulty of trying to live normally while coping with all the losses is a puzzle with missing pieces. It reminds us to reflect on our gratefulness for the ease of our lives before receiving an unwanted course in multiple hurricane survival strategy.
Coping with Natural Disasters
I've decided that coping with natural disasters is a frustrating exercise in the most difficult of brainteasers. In what seems like a swift finger snap, my area experienced the first punch from Hurricane Frances followed by the whipping tale end of Ivan and then another devastating blow from Hurricane Jeanne. These events occurred in a total of 15 days, lumping many of us into the over populated category of survivors experiencing disaster stress. The difficulty of trying to live normally while coping with all the losses is a puzzle with missing pieces. It reminds us to reflect on our gratefulness for the ease of our lives before receiving an unwanted course in multiple hurricane survival strategy.
We have five more weeks of hurricane season and I don't know anyone who watches the weather station anymore. Why should we, what else could wind and water do to us? These spitting, blowing gut busters left us in a fog of broken homes, broken personal items, and broken lives. The disaster started with the event but the real trauma of the disaster is the aftermath. Elderly people became homeless and left to walk the streets with a blurry vision lacking the knowledge of if they were coming or going. Thousands of people need help and many are here to help; yet, they are only human in doing so. This is when we need super man, woman and child to brace themselves with armor capable of multiple tasking that is not only efficient but also effective.
Unfortunately, we can't twirl in a phone booth and transform ourselves so we have to find a way to make progress. One of the first questions I had to ask myself was why did I put myself in an area that may be more vulnerable to natural disasters. I can choose to not live on a barrier island. When I moved here, I understood when I couldn't get anything but fire insurance there must be a serious reason. I'm a reasonable person, I digested the information but I did it anyway. I've read that included in the definition of vulnerability is the extent of freedom people have in making choices regarding how and where they live ruled by economic, political and social limitations. (Hamza and Zetter, 1998). Surely, I considered all of these factors but it didn't seem to matter. My love of walking on the beach acted as a veil between vulnerability and me. In that case the only other thing to do is figure how best to move beyond the life that existed before and into conquering a new phase of my life that is presently, like so many others, riddled with bullet holes of stress.
First, we need to understand what is normal in these types of traumatic situations. Adults, children as well as all the disaster rescue and relief workers experience normal stress reactions after a traumatic event. The following reactions may last for several days or a few weeks and may include.
- Emotional reactions: shock; fear; grief; anger; guilt; shame; feeling helpless or hopeless; feeling numb; feeling empty; diminished ability to feel interest, pleasure, or love
- Cognitive reactions: confusion, disorientation, indecisiveness, worry, shortened attention span, difficulty concentrating, memory loss, unwanted memories, self-blame
- Physical reactions: tension, fatigue, edginess, insomnia, bodily aches or pain, startling easily, racing heartbeat, nausea, change in appetite, change in sex drive
- Interpersonal reactions: distrust, conflict, withdrawal, work problems, school problems, irritability, loss of intimacy, being over-controlling, feeling rejected or abandoned
Many people are experiencing more severe symptoms putting them at risk for lasting PostTraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). These symptoms include:
- Dissociation (detachment, isolation, fatigue, amnesia)
- Intrusive re-experiencing (terrifying memories, nightmares, or flashbacks)
- Extreme emotional numbing (completely unable to feel emotion, as if empty)
- Extreme attempts to avoid disturbing memories
- Hyper-arousal (panic attacks, rage, extreme irritability, intense agitation)
- Severe anxiety (debilitating worry, extreme helplessness, compulsions or obsessions)
- Severe depression (loss of the ability to feel hope, pleasure, or interest; feeling worthless)
There are certain aspects of disaster that are particularly traumatic. The following are likely to put survivors at risk for severe stress symptoms and lasting PTSD if the survivor directly experiences them or witnesses them:
- Life threatening danger or physical harm
- Exposure to gruesome death, bodily injury, or dead or maimed bodies
- Extreme environmental or human violence or destruction
- Loss of home, valued possessions, neighborhood, or community
- Loss of communication with or support from close relations
- Intense emotional demands (rescue personnel and caregivers searching for possibly dying survivors, or interacting with bereaved family members)
- Extreme fatigue, weather exposure, hunger, sleep deprivation
- Extended exposure to danger, loss, emotional/physical strain
- Exposure to toxic contamination
Some individuals have a higher than typical risk for severe stress symptoms and lasting PTSD, including those with a history of:
- Exposure to other traumas such as accidents, abuse, assault, combat, rescue work
- Chronic medical illness or psychological disorders
- Chronic poverty, homelessness, unemployment, or discrimination
- Recent or subsequent major life stressors or emotional strain
- Disaster stress may revive memories of prior trauma and may intensify preexisting social, economic, spiritual, psychological, or medical problems.
As we come together with our families and with our communities after a natural disaster each person needs to recognize their own feelings and to be open to communication. Sharing stories, listening to others, accepting help and taking time to regroup is important. Grieving, depression and stress are exhausting, getting rest and making time for twenty minutes of exercise will help make a difference in your coping level. Volunteering to help others and staying connected to those around you is key to getting through one more day.
If you have children:
- Talk with your child about his or her feelings and your feelings. You will find that many of your feelings are shared, regardless of your child's age. Encourage your child to draw pictures of the disaster. This will help you understand the child's views of what happened.
- Like you, your child is scared. Provide factual information about the event that the child can understand.
- Recognize the signs of stress such as: headaches, stomach aches, reluctance to go to bed, nightmares, regressive behavior, temper tantrums and loss of interest in playing.
- Reassure and continue to reassure your child that your family is safe.
- Review safety procedures that are now in place, including the role your child can take.
- Hold your child. Touching provides extra reassurance that someone is there for her or him.
- Encourage the child to help those less fortunate than themselves. They may prepare food, clothing and other items for donations.
- Spend extra time with your child, especially at bedtime.
- Relax rules, but maintain family structure and responsibility.
- Give a lot of praise and recognize responsible behavior.
- Let the child know they are not responsible for what has happened.
- Work closely with teachers, day-care personnel, baby-sitters and others who may not understand how the disaster has affected your child.
Accepting that normal may be scattered thinking assaulted by negative brain babble creating self doubt and nightmares cause anxiety, sadness and resentment. For many, spontaneous crying may be triggered by the slightest of events. For me, it was when I noticed an additional number of scratches on my car. Now how silly is that, to boohoohoo over a car when I had neighbors who had lost a lifetime of possessions, memories and homes and I still have a large wooden deck sticking out of the side of my house. Yet, for me, this was the breaking point - my car.
I have always found the best way to help myself is to help others. By doing so, it helps me process my perspective of my own life. If you are a person who works or volunteers to help disaster survivors here are some suggestions:
- The first priority is to be a team player by respecting and working through the site chain of command. Being a team player also means pitching in to provide basic care and comfort to survivors and workers.
- A close second priority is to make personal contact in a genuine way with survivors and rescue workers. Listen; don't give advice. Ask the survivors how they and their children are doing and find out what you can do to help. If they need it, provide them with food, beverages, practical supplies (e.g., clothes, blankets, sunscreen, magazines, writing implements, telephone), and a comfortable place to sit.
- A third priority is to help them "defuse" by encouraging them to tell their story. Ask: "Have you ever been through anything like this before?" "How's it going finding a place to stay and getting the assistance you need?" "Is there anyone I can help you get in touch with?" "What do you find yourself remembering most since this all happened?" "Where were you when this started?" "What are your top three main concerns for the next few hours or days?"
- A fourth priority is to carefully assess the risk factors and symptomatic problems for PTSD or other health problems. Identify and set up referrals for the persons or families most likely to be in need of further care.
We all need to help one another in disasters. We can help each other by reminding one another to safeguard our health and self-esteem. We can recognize and accept that each person will move forward at their own pace for processing the trauma. We can direct each other to helpful information and organizations. We can stay connected by communicating supportively with family, disaster workers and neighbors. We can inform the necessary people if we detect one of our own to be at-risk for more severe problems. Lastly, we can validate each other's concerns, coping skills, hopes and goals for the future.
Hurricane stress-related rage is common. Human reactions in the beginning will range from panic purchasing and preparing to denial they need to take shelter and leave their homes when first asked to evacuate. Then after a stay in a shelter, getting home is priority. Each person desperately hoping all will be "normal". Hoping their belongings will still be safely sheltered in a home that is still standing. Then you find - nothing is as it was. Confusing darting thoughts sneak into your brain asking if you should rebuild, sell as is, or just put on spurs, saddle up and head for the hills.
Creating the new normal as any grief situation is a different path for everyone. When disasters overlap, as they did in my state, sometimes the only thing a person can do if they are overwhelmed is to leave the area for a time to regain stability. Once the mind has cleared the decisions can be made.
The unscathed don't get off free from grief either. They often suffer "survivor's guilt". They will have a tendency to push themselves to the limit trying to help others.
According to the National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), an estimated 7.8 percent of Americans will experience PTSD at some point in their lives, with women (10.4%) twice as likely as men (5%) to develop PTSD. About 3.6 percent of U.S. adults aged 18 to 54 (5.2 million people) have PTSD during the course of a given year. What I know for certain is that disaster seems to bring out the dedication and strength of the people in our communities.
Thousands of people hunkered down in shelters to survive the storm. Through darkness, without water, sharing food and battery operated radios they all survived - together. When the sun wrapped it's rays around the misery left behind, a community of people have joined hands to work together to start rebuilding their homes, businesses, and lives. It proves that even in times of short tempers, blaring irritations open oozing emotional and physical wounds all surrounded by a new level for a high anxiety, that people find a way to rise above the debris of destruction and move towards renewal.
I, before the hurricanes, had considered myself "Jane of my own jungle". I was very fond of my mega flora and fauna. With care, I approached one of my fallen trees that had not totally uprooted. As it lay on the ground, new sprouts appeared to be shouting out "stand me up and let me grow tall and mighty once again". I realized that the growing sprouts are only echoing the sounds of the resurrection in my neighborhood for it too will stand tall with houses equipped with new building codes to withstand the next year's blast of hurricanes. Where there is a will - it is true - there always is a way