Aiding Victims Helps Americans Cope With Katrina

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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.”

What You Can Do to Help Katrina's Survivors

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.”

How to Survive the Emotional Trauma of a Storm

Build Feelings of Normalcy, Security

To help ease stress, it’s important to take care of yourself -- especially if you’re a volunteer, says Kaslow. That means eating right, getting regular exercise, staying in touch with friends and family. Prayer and meditation can also help.

Limit the amount of time you watch television coverage, Kaslow advises. “We all get into overload. [The media] has done a wonderful job, but there’s not that much change in the news every 15 minutes. You need to monitor your TV viewing, otherwise it overwhelms you. You feel paralyzed. I don’t mean quit watching entirely, but be mindful how much you are watching.”

Getting back to your regular routine can help you cope, says O’Malley. “It’s important that we all get back our regular routine, especially if we have children. They should not spend 20 hours a day thinking about this. They need games to play. They have friends to make.”

In your family, introduce the feeling of problem solving, he suggests. “Without alarming anyone too much, it’s useful for families to sit and talk about what’s going on. It’s helpful to talk about your family’s plan for disaster. ‘Here’s what we will do if something happens; we’ll go to Aunt Lily’s.’ Whatever you can do to support the idea that we’re not helpless is good.”

“Even though tragedy can strike, there’s always something people can do to help themselves and their families to get through it,” O’Malley says.

Katrina's Refugees: Facing Life Far From Home

By Jeanie Lerche Davis, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Nadine Kaslow, PhD, professor of psychiatry, Emory University, Atlanta. Flynn O’Malley, PhD, a psychologist, Menninger Clinic, Houston.