Those who survive hurricanes and other natural disasters are at risk for behavioral and emotional readjustment problems. Most child and adult survivors experience one or more normal stress reactions for several days after a natural disaster.
LSU AgCenter family life professor Dr. Diane D. Sasser identifies those reactions:
• Emotional: temporary (lasting from several days to a couple of weeks) feelings of shock, fear, grief, anger, resentment, guilt, shame, helplessness, hopelessness or emotional numbness (difficulty feeling love and intimacy or difficulty taking interest and pleasure in day-to-day activities).
• Cognitive: confusion, disorientation, indecisiveness, worry, shortened attention span, difficulty concentrating, memory loss, unwanted memories, self-blame.
• Physical: tension, fatigue, edginess, difficulty sleeping, bodily aches or pain, startling easily, racing heartbeat, nausea, change in appetite, change in sex drive.
• Interpersonal (relationships at school, work, in friendships, in marriage or as a parent): distrust, irritability, conflict, withdrawal, isolation, feeling rejected or abandoned, being distant, judgmental or over-controlling.
"Most disaster survivors experience only mild, normal stress reactions," Sasser says, adding, "Disaster experiences may even promote personal growth and strengthen relationships." She points out, however, that as many as one out of every three disaster survivors experience one or more severe stress symptoms that may lead to lasting Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders, or depression. The family life expert lists the symptoms:
• Dissociation (feeling completely unreal or outside yourself, like in a dream; having "blank" periods of time you cannot remember).
• Intrusive re-experiencing (terrifying memories, nightmares or flashbacks).
• Extreme attempts to avoid disturbing memories (such as through substance abuse).
• Extreme emotional numbing (completely unable to feel emotion, as if empty).
• Hyper-arousal (panic attacks, rage, extreme irritability, intense agitation).
• Severe anxiety (paralyzing worry, extreme helplessness, compulsions or obsessions).
• Severe depression (complete loss of hope, self-worth, motivation, or purpose in life).
Sasser says survivors are at greatest risk for severe stress symptoms and lasting readjustment problems if any of the following are either directly experienced or witnessed during or after the disaster:
• Loss of loved ones or friends.
• Life threatening danger or physical harm (especially to children).
• Exposure to gruesome death, bodily injury or dead or maimed bodies.
• Extreme environmental or human violence or destruction.
• Loss of home, valued possessions, neighborhood or community.
• Loss of communication with or support from close relations.
• Intense emotional demands (rescue personnel, caregivers searching for possibly dying survivors or interacting with bereaved family members).
• Extreme fatigue, weather exposure, hunger or sleep deprivation.
• Extended exposure to danger, loss, emotional/physical strain.
• Exposure to toxic contamination (such as gas or fumes, chemicals).
To reduce stress symptoms and to promote readjustment after a disaster, Sasser recommends, first, finding a safe place that provides shelter, food and liquids, sanitation, privacy and the opportunity to sit quietly, relax and sleep, at least briefly.
Next, work on immediate personal and family priorities to enable you and your significant others to preserve or regain a sense of hope, purpose and self-esteem.
Maintain or reestablish communication with family, peers and counselors or clergy to talk about your experiences. Take advantage of opportunities to "tell your story" and to be a listener to others as they tell theirs, so that you and they can release the stress a little bit at a time.
Identify key resources, such as FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), the Red Cross, the Salvation Army or the local and state health departments, for clean-up, health, housing, and basic emergency assistance.
"Taking each day, one at a time is essential in the wake of a disaster," Sasser advises.
For information on related disaster recovery topics, click on LSU AgCenter Web site at www.lsuagcenter.com. For local information and educational programs, contact an extension agent in your parish LSU AgCenter office.