Our colleague, co-developer of Time Perspective Therapy and my husband, Richard Sword, PhD, has worked in disaster stress control management with state and federal governments for over twenty years. Rick has assisted both first responders suffering from the effects of working long hours filled with the incredible stress of dealing with unimaginable circumstances, as well as disaster victims, in numerous plane crashes and presidentially-declared disasters. His experiences contribute to our advice below to those impacted by Sandy’s destructive power.
Time Perspective Therapy (TPT) has a significantly different focus on the management of disaster stress control than previous models. The old models focus on re-living the traumatic experience to achieve a better present sense of one’s time frame. Instead, TPT focuses on remembering the positive things of the past rather than only the negative and working together with your community in the present to create a brighter tomorrow. TPT does not ignore or white wash traumatic memories by any means; however we specifically avoid the trap of getting stuck in traumatic negative past which may amplify its horrendous effects.
Therapist – Be Aware of Compassion Burnout
The enormity of the situation may cause overwhelming stress and “compassion burnout” to sneak up on therapists in the disaster zone. Focus your good wishes and heroic efforts on contributing to helping others understand their reactions, while enabling them to create a better future. Be conscientious of your own health, needs and limits. As mentioned in our last column, therapists please take care of yourself and stay focused so you can take care of others. Don’t take a disaster (you) to a disaster, and remember you did not cause this problem -you are there to help alleviate it for as many sufferers as possible.
Many people will need to talk about the unbelievable experience they just survived. They may be suffering from an acute stress disorder (ASD) injury for the first month - as if they were reliving a bad dream. They may disassociate themselves from the fear and horror they survived. They need to be cared for and listened to. It will take time, talk and tears to adjust to a new disaster-created reality for which we were all unprepared.
Behavioral Phases in Disasters
People go through psychological stages following a major disaster. At first they are in the “happy to survive” phase which can last for a few days to a few of weeks - or longer for die-hard optimists. Then as reality sets in and needed resources and supplies are delayed – the “irritability and anger” phase commences. We are seeing signs of this now – at bus stops, gas lines and looting. Some people will turn to fatalism and feel their reality is so difficult they can never recover. Understandably, they want things to be the way they were before the storm and when they realize it may take weeks, months or years to recover, fear and frustration arise as anger. Lashing out at others, including and especially loved ones is not unusual. Feelings of powerlessness, helplessness and lack of control can cause the best of us to over-react and act out. Folks need someone to talk to and want to feel that person is actively listening to them. They don’t want to feel judged. They want to be understood and told its okay and that it’s actually normal to feel the way they do. And it is! They’ve already lost huge parts of their lives and for many people, self-esteem will be a big part of the loss. Share with them that what they are feeling is temporary and in time they will regain their losses. Their new lives may be totally different from what they had in the past, maybe simpler, but equally as good. Possessions may be lost, but love of family and friends strengthened.
Still other people will hold on to the sense of optimism that brought many of our forefathers to America and made this country great. These folks may be rare, so if you are one of the blessed few be prepared to shine your bright light on others. Remind people of the spirit of creating a better and more sustainable future. That’s the spirit that got us through tough times like World War II and that’s the spirit we need now more than ever. By encouraging and motivating the willingness to work together we can as a nation give hope to all those affected by this disaster and subsequent ones (likely as consequences of international ignoring the threats of global warming)..We’ve learned a lot from the citizens of Japan in the last year and a half. They suffered the worst disaster since the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and in a short time, have shown the world what citizens pulling together can do for a nation.
Focus Forward, Not Backward
In TPT, we move forward rather than continually looking backward. The same holds true for a healthy recovery after a disaster. We learn from the past and recall wonderful memories – the good times we can build on. This will help us overcome the negative events of the past and motivate us to a brighter future. By focusing on helping our families and communities, we make new memories, which is far more important than going over and over the bad ones. Let’s look forward and aim high for a brighter and sustainable future by working together and being there for each other.
Visit www.timecure.com for a link - on the home page - to view a 20 minute guided imagery video called After the Storm – The Hero in You. You’ll also find free guided imagery videos www.lifehut.com for relief from anxiety, stress, disturbed sleep, etc.
In our next column we’ll talk about the similarities between the stages of trauma and the stages of grief. Until then, take care of yourself and each other and know that our thoughts and prayers are with you!
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) - http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-pts...
The Time Cure: Overcoming PTSD with the New Psychology of Time Perspective Therapy (Zimbardo, Sword & Sword, 2012, Wiley Publishing)
For more information on the effects of PTSD, see The Time Cure: Overcoming PTSD with the New Psychology of Time Perspective Therapy (Zimbardo, Sword & Sword, 2012, Wiley Publishing,) and for strategies to reduce stress and improve communication, visit www.timecure.com and www.lifehut.com.