Last year's Gulf Coast hurricanes are a ruthless reminder of nature's power. Every year, the names change, but the devastation doesn't. Although hurricanes come and go, the destruction they often leave behind can haunt lives and regions for weeks, months, and years afterwards.
"The end of the storm isn't the end of the hurricanes' effects," says Patricia A. Farrell, PhD, a psychologist and author of How to Be Your Own Therapist. "In fact, the total effect, in terms of psychological trauma, may not be felt until a week or more after the storms. It's the post-hurricane effects that residents in those areas will have to contend with once the rains stop and the water recedes."
Psychological effects may not hit hurricane victims right away because weathering a hurricane can trigger an adrenaline surge to help them make it through the initial hours during the storm and cleanup afterward.
"It's then that you are active in protecting yourself and in preparing for the storms and the physical cleanup. But once the rush of activity is over, the reality of how dangerous it was and what you went through sets in, and it's at that time that you begin to experience the emotional leftovers of the storm," Farrell says.
The emotional wreckage after surviving a natural disaster is nothing to be taken lightly. Here are some signs to watch for that could indicate you or someone you love is experiencing posttraumatic symptoms:
- Grief, mourning, depression, or despair
- Anxiety, nervousness, or confusion
- Feelings of helplessness and vulnerability
- Social withdrawal or paranoia
- Insomnia or persistent nightmares
- Moodiness or being easily angered or aroused
- Difficulties concentrating and memory loss
- Increased drug and alcohol use
But there are ways to cope. Preparing yourself for the aftermath is part of the recovery and reclamation process; you are reclaiming your life.
Farrell suggests several ways that you and your family can begin to individually and collectively cope with any of Mother Nature's hazards:
- Keep a journal where you can give your thoughts and fears a voice. This is helpful and allows you to unburden yourself.
- Discuss your concerns with others and listen to theirs so that you can see that you aren't alone and that what you're experiencing is a normal process.
- Remember that some changes in emotion are part of getting back to normal after a traumatic event.
- Seek out things that give you enjoyment and peace. It's time to recharge your psychic batteries.
- Be sure that you get sufficient sleep and eat a balanced diet. "Part of maintaining our mental health is through maintaining your physical health, and diet plays a big role here."
- Practice self-relaxation exercises such as relaxation breathing and guided imagery whenever you feel you need it "or even when it's not apparent that you may need a break."
- Keep your lines of communication open to others in your life.
- Laugh whenever you are amused. "Laughter is one of those medicines that is very potent, yet requires no prescription," Farrell says.
- Plan a "day of nonsense" where you do absolutely nothing but something you enjoy.
- Don't assume you "should have known" anything; we're all human, we're all allowed to make mistakes, and we'll make them in the future.
Research shows that in the absence of well-designed interventions, many victims of a disaster may develop lasting depression, anxiety, and other emotional problems. Fortunately, in most cases, many symptoms gradually go away over the weeks following an event. If you feel you are experiencing severe or prolonged posttraumatic symptoms, it may be a good idea to check in with a health professional.