Hurricane Survival

Reducing Trauma After A Natural Disaster

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by Melissa FOX

First responders are everyday superheroes, but supporting the public can be as mentally exhausting as physically. This is more so when called upon during a natural disaster. While trauma is an inevitable part of the job, working the muscles in your mind can help mitigate any emotional fallout for our dedicated front-line workers. 

“Health professionals can be vulnerable to psychological stress due to the nature of their work,” explains Dr. Kauliss P. Lanthier, a Clinical Psychologist at Patterns Bermuda. 

It takes a specific personality to manage the ups and downs that come with being a first responder. Still, even innately altruistic individuals may suffer from burnout—general exhaustion and lack of interest or motivation. You may also present with symptoms like: 

  • Sleep disturbances 
  • Angry outbursts 
  • Irrationality 
  • Feelings of alienation 
  • Depression 
  • Weight gain 
  • Opioid dependence 

Then, there’s compassion fatigue, also known as vicarious trauma. Compassion fatigue can develop after repeated or long-term exposure to traumatized folks. Compassion fatigue presents as a lack of empathy or even negative feelings towards those with whom you are working. 

If symptoms persist, you may be dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “If you are so overwhelmed by the event that memories don’t resolve, they remain stored in the brain and nervous system in an unhealthy way,” Dr. Lanthier says. “The memory lingers and disrupts everyday life.” 

Bermudians are no stranger to natural disasters; many of us have experienced the howling winds, thrashing waves, and torrential rains that accompany hurricanes and tropical storms. Unfortunately, first-hand experience does not make emergency workers exempt from burnout. However, the ability to work through trauma goes a long way to ensuring a strong mindset in the face of catastrophe. 

“If you can process and make sense of the event by feeling okay with moving on afterward, you are unlikely to develop PTSD,” Dr. Lanthier says. 

First responders should make a point of practicing coping strategies in their downtime to guarantee their mental muscles are ready when the wind speed starts to pick up. 

“Emotional distress can happen before and after a disaster,” Dr. Lanthier warns. “But you can make preparations to manage things within your control.” These preparations can include stocking up on necessities, self-care and identifying support systems. 

Psychological preparedness can be developed through techniques like mindfulness. The proper psychological tools can help increase your ability to think clearly and rationally during a natural disaster, which may help reduce the risk of severe injury and loss of life during disasters. 

“Understanding one’s own and other’s psychological response in a natural disaster warning situation helps people feel more confident, more in control and better prepared. Remaining cool, calm and mentally collected is a substantial aid to family members and others who may not be as well prepared for what is happening.” 

Mitigating the long-term effects of a disaster 

It’s common to experience mild to moderate anxiety or stress after a natural disaster, but you can mitigate the long-term effects by preparing in advance. Dr. Lanthier suggests: 

  • Give yourself time to adjust. Allow yourself to mourn the losses you have experienced and try to be patient with changes in your emotional state. 
  • Surround yourself with supportive and caring friends and family. Social support is a key component of disaster recovery. There is comfort when sharing with those who have gone through a similar experience. On the other hand, speaking to those not involved may lend greater objectivity and support. 
  • Attending a support group can be quite beneficial. Groups can help those with limited personal support systems. 
  • Maintain prior eating and sleep regimens. Eat well-balanced meals at regular times. Get plenty of rest by keeping a regular sleep cycle. Engage in relaxation techniques if sleep difficulties persist. Avoid alcohol and drugs to assist with emotional numbing. Substance use only delays positive actions that will assist with recovery after the disaster. 
  • Establish or re-establish routines. Maintain your workout schedule. Create new positive outlets such as a new hobby, walking along the beach or reading a book trilogy to offset the distressing days. 
  • Avoid making major life decisions. Switching careers or jobs and other important decisions tend to be highly stressful endeavours. Such major decisions will be harder to manage when recovering from a disaster. 
  • Self-Soothing is Important. Stress reduction interventions such as mindfulness, yoga and sports participation have been shown to boost mood and strengthen resilience factors, protecting before trauma and healing after trauma. 
  • Limit watching the news. News is available 24 hours a day via television, radio and the Internet. There can be a replay of news stories depicting devastation from disasters or traumatic events. Watching disaster news reports can trigger stress and anxiety that lead to reliving negative memories. This can contribute to poor sleep, nightmares and jumpiness. 

Dealing With Trauma Before, During, And After Natural Disasters 

Firefighters, police officers, soldiers, EMTs, nurses and even electrical technicians securing downed powerlines are at high risk of trauma when they’re in rescue and recovery mode. Stresses related to the job can be mitigated by stocking your “toolkit” well in advance. 

Prepare Before the Disaster 

  • Train hard and know your job. “You will perform at peak capacity with more confidence and less stress if you know you are as ready as you can be.” 
  • Keep a freshly stocked go-kit in your car or at your worksite and include your top choices for stress reducers. 
  • Know the Incident Command System so you understand the language, the lines of reporting and ways to work effectively with responders from other units. 
  • During the Disaster 
  • Activate your disaster plan and include loved ones who may be directly affected by the event. 
  • Review your communication plan and know where each family member and/or loved one will be located and when you will be checking in. 
  • Recognize your stress signs and those of your teammates. Create “stress break” opportunities for each other. 
  • Avoid over-identifying with survivors’ grief and trauma. “For example, remind yourself this is not happening to you or your loved ones.” 
  • Be aware of “compassion fatigue.” Accept when you need to end direct contact with survivors and alert your team leader for support. 

After the Disaster 

In the case of emergency workers, one of the most important pieces of self-care in the aftermath of a natural disaster is to shift focus from supporting the community to supporting yourself. 

  • Focus on the core components of resilience: adequate sleep, good nutrition (including hydration), regular physical activity, and active relaxation 
  • Engage with your fellow workers to celebrate successes and mourn sorrows as a group. 
  • Create space to be alone where you can think, meditate and rest. 
  • Remove yourself from the disaster area to confirm that not every place is so troubled. 
  • Find things to look forward to. 
  • Creating new rituals can bring peace, such as writing down your anger and then burning it as a symbolic goodbye gesture. 

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