Natural responses to natural disasters

By Steve Dodge

When disaster strikes, medical teams and relief workers rush in and do their best to help the victims. But what happens when the headlines fade, and the cameras and many of the relief workers have gone home?

Deborah Wise, professor in the School of Professional Psychology (SPP), said the event may be over, but those who experience disasters like the Asian tsunami in December can suffer effects long after.

Stress and grief reactions to natural disasters are normal responses to an abnormal situation, she said. Physically, the body activates its “fight or flight” mechanism, believed to be a remnant from ancient humans who faced daily danger.

Victims of disasters may feel constant stress with accompanying aches and pains and strong fears of a recurrence of the event.

Symptoms of stress reactions may include: re-experiencing: The victim is unable to get the event out of his mind and may dream about it; avoidance: The victim avoids talking about what happened, avoids places that remind them of what happened and feels numb; hyperarousal: The victim has difficulty concentrating, is irritable and jumpy, and constantly looks for signs of danger.

According to Wise, factors that can make reactions worse include more personal exposure such as family or friends that died, one’s house or community destroyed or prolonged exposure to the situation.

Victims of natural disaster and other traumas such as combat or sexual assault may suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) if these symptoms persist and impact daily functioning. Fortunately, she added, therapists are better trained than in the past to recognize and treat PTSD.

“One of the things we do is target their thoughts and to get them to realize that memories aren’t going to hurt them,” said Wise, who teaches in the school, conducts research, and does mental health counseling.

Many patients work hard to avoid memories of a traumatic event, thinking that revisiting these memories will be too overwhelming. However, dealing with even horrific memories head on, can lessen their impact, she said. “We try to help people to become comfortable with their memories. They are going to have them regardless.”

One way to do that, she said, is to talk about it, and talk more about it. “We call this prolonged exposure. The idea is not to hurt the person, but they have the memory anyhow, so wouldn’t it be nice if it didn’t cause so much pain? You can learn to live with very traumatic experiences.”

The idea, she said, is to convey that the person is stronger than the memory, to ultimately become so used to the memory it no longer evokes such strong emotional reactions. Besides the talk therapy, some antipsychotic and antidepressant medicines have proven useful, she noted.

Ultimately, Wise said she and other therapists seek to help survivors of traumatic events feel better by helping them realize they are having very normal reactions to very abnormal situations.

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