Coping with the emotional aftermath of Hurricane Sandy

Consumer Reports News: November 01, 2012 04:38 PM

One of the frustrations of Hurricane Sandy is that even our best efforts could not prevent a huge amount of destruction. Consider my friend Adam Wexler, owner of Resolution Audio Video in the waterfront section of Red Hook in Brooklyn. Before the storm he moved all his equipment up to 5 foot high scaffolding and thought it was safe. But when he arrived at work on Tuesday, he found the steel doors to his building had been caved in by the force of the water, which reached a high water mark of 8 feet. His equipment was scattered and soaked.

As a clinical psychologist, I urge Adam and the millions of others affected by the hurricane to take a little time to acknowledge the internal turmoil caused by the days and possibly weeks of heightened stress. Don't be dismissive of your own situation, even if it's so much less horrific than the TV images of towns washed away and entire city blocks burnt to the ground. The more mundane after-effects such as power outages, downed trees, and difficult commutes, are also highly stressful. Everyone experiences and copes with trauma in different ways. Here are a variety of approaches, which I've found effective working with clients suffering traumatic events, that you can keep in mind as you deal with the aftermath of the hurricane.

Acknowledge your feelings. Whether you have lost your home, or have been deeply affected by watching images of these terrible events, you will have an emotional response. Research has shown that acknowledging and talking about your feelings immediately following a traumatic event can reduce the likelihood of later development of trauma-related disorders.

Take some time to process the events. Processing a traumatic event can include talking with friends, writing in a diary, or talking with a mental health professional. Support groups are often available in areas affected by major disasters. The state of New Jersey has crisis help information available. Social media is a newer resource that many have access to using a smartphone during power outages. This is a useful way to connect with friends and family and share your experiences if you do not have access to in-person support.

Take a moment to observe the positive. As we get caught up in meeting our basic needs, and counting our losses, we also need to observe the amazing cooperation and kindness occurring all around us. Step back and watch children play, enjoy a moment of sunshine, or focus on acts of selflessness. My friend Adam, for example, has been moved by the support of others. "This experience has allowed me to meet and work together with fellow business owners, creating a tighter community among the local community," he says. "The equipment can be replaced but no storm can wash away the feelings of love and support I've experienced."

Find productive ways to deal with feelings of guilt or sorrow. It's not uncommon for those relatively unaffected by disasters to experience guilt and sorrow. These feelings should be acknowledged as well. If you are in the area affected by Sandy, there are many local shelters and organizations that could use assistance. If you are outside the area and would like to help, consider a donation to the Red Cross or other reputable charitable organizations assisting in the recovery.

Allow yourself to enjoy the routine activities of day to day life. Large scale tragedies often provide ironic moments of calm in our normally hassled daily lives. Turn off the radio and TV and take some time to sit with family, friends, and neighbors and enjoy a simple meal or play a board game. These moments can also aid in processing the events and allow us to reconnect with others.

Do not hesitate to ask for help. As the weeks and months pass some may discover they are more agitated than usual, having difficulty sleeping, experiencing unexpected panic, or just feeling down and depressed. These could be symptoms of post-traumatic stress and you should not hesitate to visit your doctor or a mental health professional for help. We all process trauma differently and there is no shame in seeking help, no matter what you experienced during this or other traumatic events.

--Andrew Schwartz, Ph.D.

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