None of us were fully prepared to deal with Hurricane Harvey and the flooding it caused. It was devastating to see homes destroyed, property damaged, and lives lost.
Many of us felt overwhelmed when our friends and co-workers experienced dangerous events. This was a very emotionally tense time. It is common to have a prolonged or delayed emotional reaction to Hurricane Harvey.
Here are some common emotional reactions to natural disasters such as flooding:
- Anxiety, fear
- Disbelief or denial of events
- Difficulty Sleeping and nightmares
- Exhaustion and mental fatigue
- Difficulty concentrating and working
- Feeling disoriented in time
- Increasing frustration and impatience
- Reliving images of traumatic events
- Tendency to isolate or withdraw
- Survivor’s guilt
Most of us that did not flood experienced survivor’s guilt. Does this seem familiar: “I was blessed and lucky that my home was spared of flooding. I feel so bad that my neighbors who flooded and lost everything”?
Survivor’s guilt is a common condition when a person believes they have done something wrong by surviving a traumatic event when others did not. It is often experienced after traumatic events such as: terrorism, natural disasters, or chronic disease.
Survivor’s guilt may exist for a reason. It is a way of dealing with the lack of control over what happened to our community. It helps us deal with the helplessness and powerlessness of being in a life-threatening situation without the ability to protect or save others. It can be way of expressing connection to those that are affected. It also provides a sense of belonging to a community or group. It can be adaptive if it mobilizes you to an action such as helping others. It can help people find meaning and make sense of their experience.
Individuals with a sense of responsibility for others, or individuals in positions of authority, may be more prone to experiencing survivor’s guilt.
If you are still dealing with the emotional aftermath of Hurricane Harvey here are some things that can help you recover:
- Accept Survivor’s Guilt
Acknowledge and accept that guilt exists. These feelings are quite common and represent part of the healing process and dealing with the loss. Guilt feelings may not be logical but they are real. Still do some reality testing, ask yourself if there is anything that you did wrong. Others can help you. Remind yourself that you are only human and be kind to yourself.
Maintain regular physical activity. Exercise greatly increases resistance to stress associated with traumatic events and relieves immediate symptoms of stress. Avoid an unhealthy, strew-induced diet of junk food, sugar, and fat. Studies show that a moderated intake of fats, sugar, caffeine, and alcohol can improve resistance to stress and promote recovery.
- Get Adequate Sleep
Keep a usual sleep schedule when as possible. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day and avoid sleeping in. Get 7-9h of sleep. Short naps during the day can be helpful. Lack of sleep affects your mood, concentration, and ability to deal with stress.
- Connect, Connect, Connect
Emotional connection is crucial when healing from trauma. The best predictor of the impact of any trauma is not the severity of the event but whether or not we can seek comfort from others. Studies show that people who had strong social support during Katrina were more resilient to psychological trauma. In general, people need a familiar system of support and community. Do not isolate yourself. It is very stressful to be alone all the time. Social engagement can boost your mood, while isolation can worsen your emotions. Loneliness can even trigger depression.
- Talk It Out
Talk about your feelings and stress reactions with someone you feel close to or with someone with similar experiences. By sharing our stories, we can bring meaning, create order out of chaos, and recover a sense of control. A study shows that the simple act of naming feelings calms the brain and regulates painful and difficult emotions. Identifying your feelings and sharing them puts you in a better position to change them and control them.
- Hug Your Pet
Pets are important in helping you heal. They provide tremendous comfort when we feel most vulnerable. Studies from hurricane Katrina show that loss of a pet was one of the biggest predictors of depression and anxiety.
- Change Your Perception
How you respond to a traumatic event depends on your perception of it. Do you see an event as traumatic or as an opportunity to learn and grow? Do you feel you can change and affect the situation or do you feel it’s hopeless? If you can frame adversity such as flooding as a challenge, you will be able to deal with it, move on, learn from it and grow. If you frame it as a threat, a potentially traumatic event can turn into an enduring problem and you may be prone to depression.
- Help Others
Helping others can be a good way to feel productive and recover. Find something you can do or a way you can volunteer. Helping and volunteering will give you a sense of control over the event and a sense that you can do something about. We all feel a need to be useful and helpful. There is still need for help even now that all the flooding is gone.
- Pace Yourself
Avoid overextending yourself in your work or volunteer activities. Repeatedly overextending yourself is not healthy and you can burn out.
- Laugh and Have Fun
Find something you like doing that is fun and entertaining. Don’t forget to laugh. Laughter is a great way to release stress and tension. A good laugh can cool down your stress response and it makes you feel good. Laughter can also make it easier to cope with difficult situation as well as connect with other people.
- Don’t Forget to Breathe
People under stress or experiencing panic unconsciously change their breathing. They hold in their breath or breathe with their chest. When you feel stressed, take 4-5 slow deep breaths. Make sure that your exhale is longer than your inhale. You can do that anywhere, from your car, work or home.
- Seek Professional Help
If you are still feeling stressed out, depressed, if you can’t sleep or if you are unable to perform at work don’t despair. Post hurricane stress and depression can be treated effectively in counseling or psychotherapy.
How Stress Can Make You Better:
Even if you are stressed now from Hurricane Harvey you can fully recover and maybe even change for the better. If you get intervention early you can learn how to relieve stress and you’ll make huge strides and maybe even do better than before the hurricane.
Research shows that trauma can build strength.
According to the Resilience in Survivors of Katrina Project (RISK) more than half of Katrina survivors bounced back and experienced significant emotional growth and made positive life changes. Stress can lead to changes in perception about life. Women, who were able to be strong for themselves and their families had a greater sense of their own strength, a greater sense of new possibilities, and an appreciation for life.
If you want help to turn things around and reduce anxiety, get professional help. I have seen many of my patients overcome life adversities and you can do it too.
Call Dr. Irena for FREE 10-minute phone consultation at (281) 267-1742.