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Americans Feel Katrina's Emotional Toll

Taking Action, Establishing Normal Routine Help Relieve Despair
WebMD Health News

Sept. 7, 2005 -- Horrible images and stories following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina have left many Americans not even affected by the storm feeling battered. They want to help, but how? And how can they feel less helpless?

"It's really understandable that people are feeling this way -- depression, anger, despair," says Nadine Kaslow, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at Emory University in Atlanta. She spent two nights counseling evacuees at a Red Cross shelter in Atlanta.

"No matter how close you are to the situation, there's a sad sense of loss," Kaslow tells WebMD. It's that sense of connection to another's tragedy that makes us human -- that sharing of another's pain and suffering. "There's also tremendous anxiety," she notes.

Indeed, "disasters stir up feelings of vulnerability, unpredictability ... [which] makes the very fabric of society seem unstable," notes Flynn O'Malley, PhD, a psychologist at the Menninger Clinic in Houston.

"One of the things that was hard, many people in New Orleans felt safe after the storm passed, then the levees gave way and misery began -- so there were two waves of trauma," O'Malley tells WebMD. "The feeling that occurs with anybody is, 'How safe am I?'"

Each person's life story affects their response, he adds. "Everyone brings [his] own set of circumstances to the table -- their own tragedies, losses, unexpected deaths. Maybe a traffic accident where no one was killed, but it still was a trauma. A disaster stirs up all those memories, all kinds of emotions."

For Stress Relief, Take Action

It's important to acknowledge your feelings, and then do something. Even a small effort can help you feel better, the experts agree.

"Most people respond with compassion for people who are suffering. Most people want to do something about it," O'Malley tells WebMD. "That helps us feel like they're part of the culture, the community, if we can do something, even if it's not a big something. Whatever people can do, anything that lets them contribute to the betterment of others can help them, too. They have the feeling that they're making life better for somebody, even if it's someone not directly related to this disaster."

"There are lots of little things we can do," advises Kaslow. "If you don't have money, you can volunteer, you can donate clothes. Many people are trying to help in different ways. There has to be respect for that effort. Talking about the disaster helps, too. It helps us process our own feelings, which is part of the healing process. We also help others process their feelings."

When we help each other, we experience a sense of belonging to the community at large, O'Malley explains. "We have some distant sense of connection to those people who are suffering. So it's not a 'we're fine, you're not fine' feeling. It becomes 'we're with you.' It helps people feel more human. It's compassion, no matter how it gets expressed."

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