Published November 01, 2012
The wrath of Hurricane Sandy may be over, but getting your life back to normal is only the beginning. Sandy’s damage goes beyond the physical and, for some, the emotional toll can be overwhelming. Fortunately, there are ways to combat those feelings of frustration and perhaps fear. Tara Hughes, New York State Disaster Mental Health Advisor for the American Red Cross, offered some insights on how to recover from within after a disaster like this.
Look For Signs of Stress: Sudden changes, including losing a home, finding new means of commuting or even trying to salvage food are all contributing factors to a more complicated environment. However, you may not necessarily be experiencing trauma.
“The word trauma tends to get overused,” explains Hughes. “While some may be experiencing actual trauma from seeing horrific sights from the storm, many are struggling with high levels of stress, which is more common. Stress is going to look very similar across the board, such as lack of sleeping, changing eating patterns and difficulty in concentrating, just to name a few. The brain is very focused on survival.”
Other symptoms include irritability, worrying, anxiety and impatience, which could cause some to resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as alcohol.
“I don’t care how stressed you are,” says Hughes. “If you’re experiencing high risk behavior, such as drinking, drugs and self-harm to cope, you must reach out to someone who is a professional immediately. If you see someone experiencing any kind of high risk behavior, it’s important that you reach out and get them to a professional right away.”
Seek Counseling: Talking with close friends and loved ones is crucial to releasing tension, but if those emotions become overwhelming, contacting a professional is a must. The Disaster Distress Hotline (1-800-985-5990) is a 24-hour resource recommended by Hughes, which provides immediate counseling. Shelters will also have mental health advisors who can direct people to local counseling. Hughes points out you can also go to an American Red Cross mobile unit and let the driver know you’re in need of counseling. The driver will then reach out to a mental health advisor. “We’re having lots of staff coming in within the next few days so they can go out to various communities affected by Sandy to make it easier,” she said.
Accept Gradual Change: Symptoms of stress can occur anytime and depending how you normally cope will determine how long they will last. “Some things must get settled over time first,” says Hughes. “I say it takes 3-4 weeks for symptoms to diminish, but you must get a handle of everything first. If it takes longer than 4 weeks, seek a professional. Those symptoms will go away as things return to something like normal.”
Get Physical: Working out is a healthy way to alleviate anxiety and is highly recommended for battling post-Sandy stress. “It’s one of the best things anyone can do,” says Hughes. “Toxins get dumped into the system and when we sweat it gets rid of it. You’re literally working that stuff out through your body.” While it can be stressful in itself to change your workout routine because the gym is closed, doing simple exercise routines at home can put some of that tension in its place. However, avoid jogging or running in any outdoor areas where there’s still damage from the storm, such as down power lines, trees and other debris.
Develop a Dialogue: Those whose English is not their first language are at risk of not getting the proper care they need during post-Sandy, because they may feel isolated from those who cannot speak their language. That’s why it’s important to connect with your support system, including family and close friends. “If, for example, you’re in a shelter and everyone else doesn’t speak your language, that heightens the risk because you may not feel like you have a form of support and, as a result, you won’t seek the help needed,” explains Hughes. Look for printed guides in your language and don’t hesitate to reach out to those in charge at the shelter. There are usually volunteers who speak different languages available to provide assistance.
Begin First Steps of Recovery: Once you’ve detected signs of stress, it’s time to take action. While one may feel overwhelm, Hughes notes it’s important to give yourself space to wind down and focus on what needs to be a priority.
“We live in an over-productive society and as a mother myself, we’re used to holding everything together and doing as much as possible,” says Hughes. “Cut back expectations to make handling stress easier. Divide what you need to do everyday to make the workload lighter and not as daunting. Look at what’s important in your life and focus on that.”
It’s also recommended to pay attention to ways you’ve previously handled situations in the past. Whether it’s taking a walk or hearing music, give yourself the breathing room to relax and move forward.