The super storm known as Sandy has wreaked havoc in people’s lives this week along the East Coast of the United States. More than 50 million Americans are coping with the aftermath of storm surges, snow, home evacuations, power outages, interruptions in school and work, property destruction, and severe financial losses. In every case emotional trauma can impede recovery. While protecting people and restoring safety, power, and property, is a priority in the wake of natural disasters, emotional coping also matters. Here are seven tips that can help:
1. Accept a wide range of your psychological reactions. Given that natural disasters are out of our control, expect to feel helpless and powerless. Having no one to blame can trigger frustration that gets taken out on others; so be wary about yelling at your spouse, being short with a friend, or irritable with your child.
Avoid suffering “survivor guilt” or blaming yourself for feeling relieved if you did not suffer as much as others. Recognize if your faith falters, as it did for survivors I helped after the Haiti earthquake.
2. Examine how you explain life. According to the psychological concept of “locus of control,” rate your philosophy of life on a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 equals your belief that fate, luck and forces outside yourself determine your life and “7” equals you are the full master of your fate. The reality is that we cannot control everything that happens to us, but we can exert as much control as possible over what happens, and we do have total control over how we react.
3. Connect with others. In tragic and threatening times, notice whom you contact and who contacts you, acknowledging their importance. Not being able to think of anyone who cares about your welfare is a signal that you may need to create a stronger social support system, which research shows facilitates positive coping in emergencies and life in general. Those not at risk should reach out to those in danger zones, to show their support and offer help.
4. Grow from the experience. Research shows that negative experiences not only cause post-traumatic distress but can lead to positive changes, called "post-traumatic growth." In innumerable natural disasters where I have helped survivors, like after Hurricanes Hugo and Katrina and earthquakes in San Francisco, China, Haiti and Japan, finding new meaning in life is possible.
During Sandy, my drug store clerk told me, “I don’t want to complain about silly things anymore since I can lose everything at any moment.” New commitments in relationships can be made, like my neighbor who declared, “I decided I’m going to spend more time with my children than working all the time.”
5. Use the opportunity to learn more about the environment. Survivors in recovery groups I led in Sri Lanka after the Asian tsunami were confused about what happened and wanted to know “Will this happen again?”
Lack of knowledge escalates anxiety, so learn about nature’s events, and be reassured that technology can increasingly predict occurrences.
In my newly released book, “Living in an Environmentally Traumatized World: Healing Ourselves and Our Planet” natural scientists explain inevitable changes and shifts in our waters, air, and earth, and psychologists explain how to cope.
6. Get back to normal as soon as possible. While schools and places of employment may close, sometimes for days, try get back to your routine as quickly as possible.
7. Be prepared for feelings to last. Even when media attention fades and dangers subside, emotions after a major natural disaster can linger. An argument a week later may be left-over anger from the event. Noticing this connection can prevent personal delayed explosions.
Bonus: 8. Pay particular attention to your child's reactions. When school is suspended for days as it has been in many areas due to Sandy, children are well aware of the event. Use the storm as a “teachable moment” to explain about unexpected events and ask about their thoughts and feelings. Be alert to any nightmares, especially as this storm coincides with the fantasy and fright of Halloween. It's not unusual for children to have nightmares; so be reassuring and spend extra time with them at night. Other youngsters may resist leaving home, for fear of what may happen to the family. Set up contact mechanisms with children, like programming their cell phone, so you can be in touch.
Judy Kuriansky is a New York clinical psychologist on the faculty at Columbia University Teachers College and Chair of the Psychology Coalition of NGOs at the United Nations. A well-known relationship counselor, frequent guest commentator on HLN’s Showbiz Tonight, and member of the iconic Friars Club (a fraternity of great comedians and performers), she has also been a mental-health first responder after disasters worldwide. A pioneer of radio call-in advice talk and popular media personality for years, her many books include “The Complete Idiots Guide to a Healthy Relationship” and “Living in an Environmentally Traumatized World: Healing Ourselves and Our Planet.”