This week, Super Storm Sandy tore across the East Coast, killing more than 60 people, wiping out seaside towns in New Jersey, and wreaking havoc across many states. The New York Stock Exchange and major airports were forced to close and mass transit systems ground to a halt. Millions of homes and businesses were without power. President Obama cancelled campaign appearances to coordinate disaster relief efforts and much infrastructure is still not in working order. From a psychological perspective, how is this event likely to impact survivors and people living in the affected areas? In this article, I present research and theory on trauma processing and tips from Positive Psychology to promote psychological recovery.
How We Process Extreme Events
Traumas, initially, are processed as fragmented images or sensations, and overwhelming feelings. Survivors may be frozen in terror, feel overwhelmed by panic, or dissociate from their feelings in order to focus on surviving. Images, such as the sight of a burning building or person trapped in a car crushed by a tree, may persist in the form of nightmares or intrusive thoughts. Sometimes people report more extreme forms of dissociation during the event, such as looking down at their own bodies from another place. Researchers have found that those who dissociate in this way may be more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s as if the event is too much to bear without fragmentation of mental functioning.
Interpersonal Traumas Versus Forces of Nature
Research has found that acts of nature, such as Super Storm Sandy, are less likely to lead to post-traumatic stress disorder than violent acts performed by people, such as the recent movie theater shootings. When somebody actively tries to hurt you, this adds a dimension of perceived malevolence and feelings of being violated that are especially painful to deal with. It gets complicated, however, because if part of your experience of a disaster is people, business, or government not protecting you, or even taking advantage of your vulnerable position, even hurricanes can become interpersonal traumas.
Shattering of Assumptions about the World
One reason that natural disasters or other types of traumas may have lasting impact is that they shatter our basic assumptions about the world. Suddenly everything changes and the institutional or physical structures we believed would protect us, no longer seem to do so. Trauma researchers highlight the following assumptions that may be violated:
The World is Predictable
In order to function without constant fear, most of us believe that there is a logical connection between our actions and the outcomes we receive. If we work hard, we will succeed; if we take reasonable precautions, we will be free from harm. Natural disasters are reminders of our vulnerability to unpredictable forces of nature. No matter what we do, there are powerful and threatening forces in the world beyond human control.
The World is Benevolent
We assume most of the time that we live in a world that is kind (at least to us). We assume that people are basically good and generous; that we will receive help when we most need it. In the wake of Superstorm Sandy and other disasters, such as the World Trade Center bombing, the heroic efforts of rescuers, the leadership and resources provided by government, and the generosity and support of neighbors, communities, and the nation are crucial to helping survivors regain faith in the goodness of the world.
The Self is Worthy
Many times, the experience of victimization leads us to question our own worthiness and deservingness. “Why did this happen to me?” “Am I not deserving of protection?” “Is God trying to punish me in some way?” “Am I destined to live a life of victimhood?” These questions often haunt survivors and can add a layer of self-blame and negative meanings to the disaster that make it persist as a threat in consciousness long after the event is over.
How We Heal
Over time, and with a supportive environment that provides protection,caring, and validation of self-worth, most people are able to construct a personal narrative of the event that helps them to move on and continue their lives without constant terror and grief. Assumptions of predictability, benevolence, and worthiness are restored and the event is filed away in memory as belonging to the past. This does not mean they forget what happened, or feel no pain, but rather, that they learn to accept that the event happened, realize they did the best they could in adverse circumstances, and begin to move on and rebuild their lives. Some people, however, don't complete cognitive processing because of biological vulnerability, lack of support, prior trauma, extent of impact, or other reasons. These people may develop post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, panic disorder, or other mental health problams and should seek professional help from a therapist to help them process the event. Several types of psychological treatments for trauma have been tested in research studies and found to be effective. Medications such as SSRIs (e.g., Zoloft or Prozac) can help as well.
Creating Positive Meanings
People heal psychologically when they begin to feel a sense of safety, comfort, and hope for a better future. Below are some ways that survivors and those who care about them can create more positive meanings from destructive events.
(1) Take positive action to help survivors & those affected
Volunteering, raising money, or donating blankets, clothes and other essential items are ways to provide concrete help. This will improve your self-esteem, put you in contact with others who care, and counteract the helplessness you may feel.
(2) Find solace in community or national outpourings of support.
When people come together to express caring and respect in rituals or ceremonies, by talking with each other, or expressing concern via social media, we help each other to heal. We feel less weak and vulnerable – stronger as part of a caring community than standing alone.
(3) Strengthen spiritual faith and connection with loved ones
While we cannot control the forces of nature or undo what happened, we can recommit to those aspects of our lives that provide us with meaning and comfort. When we recommit to personal and spiritual values, such as mindfulness, love, innovation, or community, we find personal strength and hope to build a better and safer world for ourselves and for future generations.
About The Author
Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. is a Practicing Psychologist, and expert on Mindfulness, Trauma, Relationships, and Positive Psychology. She frequently appears or is quoted on on national and international media, including CNN.com. Forbes.com, Self Magazine, Men's Health, Cosmopolitan, O the Oprah Magazine (South Africa), and BBC4 in the United Kingdom. Dr Greenberg provides workshops, keynotes and talks for organizations and nonprofits, weight loss, career, and parenting coaching, and psychotherapy for individuals and couples. Visit my therapist website and expert page:
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