Coping with Trauma: Hurricane Sandy Mental Health Recovery Tips
The physical impact of a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy is obvious: destroyed homes, eroded coastlines, and powerless cities. But the less visible effects can be equally as devastating, such as the mental health of the victims who are suffering in the storm’s wake.
It is estimated that as many as 60 million people were affected when Hurricane Sandy hit the Carribean, Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern United States, and Eastern Canada in late October 2012. Immediately following the storm, many Americans began to experience a phenomenon known as psychological resilience — a coping mechanism that allows people to bounce back to a normal state of functioning when faced with stress, hardship, and adversity.
Dennis S. Charney, MD, the Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Dean of Mount Sinai School of Medicine, has spent 15 years researching the power of human resilience. Recently, Dr. Charney published his findings in a book entitled Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life's Greatest Challenges, which he co-authored with Steven M. Southwick, MD. Throughout the book, the authors identify 10 resilience factors that help people cope with the impact of traumatic life-changing events.
“Developing the psychological toolbox to get through tough times is one of the primary challenges of recovering from a traumatic event,” explains Dr. Charney who is also the Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs at The Mount Sinai Medical Center. “Fostering targeted and positive traits such as optimism and altruism are critical for prevailing over adversity.”
In the Department of Psychiatry, our internationally recognized experts are at the forefront of research and clinical care for resilience, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), mood and anxiety disorders, and related mental health conditions.
“There is significant variability in the way people respond to events like Hurricane Sandy—some may feel fortunate to have gotten through safely despite substantial material loss, while others feel devastated by such losses,” says Rachel Yehuda, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience and Director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. ‘The sooner a person can accept what has happened and focus on what to do next, the quicker the recovery.’”
For those who have been significantly impacted by the hurricane, Drs. Charney and Yehuda say reactions such as numbness, ruminations, irritability, feeling down, difficulty sleeping, and nightmares are common. People who suffer mental illness, such as depression or bipolar disorder, are also more likely to experience these symptoms because tragic events often provide confirmation that the environment is unpredictable, which can be a difficult thing to cope with.
Tips for Dealing with Stressful Events
There are healthy ways to cope with these feelings and move forward. For some, bouncing back can occur relatively quickly, once the process of restoration begins. However, for others, negative reactions to what happened can linger for years. Below, Drs. Charney and Yehuda share tips on how best to embrace activity, stay positive, and expedite your return to a sense of normalcy.
- Focus on the positive: Even though life may be difficult right now, Dr. Charney explains in Resilience, that optimism is strongly correlated to stress survival. Although it is in part genetic, optimism can also be learned. He suggests finding opportunities to seek joy in moments we may otherwise take for granted and trying to recognize that this experience may help you grow stronger.
- Try to leave the past in the past: If you find that you are second guessing yourself over the window you should have boarded up or the sandbags you did not set out, this will not speed up recovery. “Part of recovering from a natural disaster is accepting that some events are beyond our control,” Dr. Yehuda says. “You need to be kind to yourself and forgive yourself after something like this happens.” She adds that most people’s negative feelings after a disaster subside when they develop a specific plan. The healthy response is to focus on making temporary living arrangements, applying for aid, or doing whatever needs to be done to move forward.
- Channel your moral compass: “Your core beliefs should be shatterproof,” Dr. Charney observes. “For many, faith, in conjunction with strong religious and/or spiritual beliefs, is associated with resilience. Turning to these principles at times of crisis can be extremely powerful.”
- Get active: No matter how affected you are, taking an active role in what is going on will help boost your mood and energy. “My foremost recommendation at this juncture is that the more proactive you can be—even if it is helping somebody else—the better you will feel,” Dr. Charney explains. “Hospitals are evacuating and people are in shelters, so there are many opportunities for you to get involved.”
- Harness your physical well-being: Exercise has positive effects on your physical mood and self-esteem, including positive reinforcement of cognition, regulation of emotion, and immune function. Dr. Charney emphasizes this principle in Resilience, and suggests you maintain or even enhance your current fitness routine.
- Turn off the television: “Watching news channels non-stop and rehashing the storm’s negative impact will not necessarily build your strength,” Dr. Yehuda points out. In general, television is useful for informational purposes, but sensationalism can have an adverse effect. Focus on activity instead.
- Keep an eye on future warning signs: The emotional reactions immediately following a traumatic event—such as irritability, feeling down, and sleep disruptions—are natural and not necessarily causes for alarm. “We do not worry so much when people have these symptoms right away,” says Dr. Yehuda. “We just want to make sure they do not turn into long-term reactions—if initial symptoms do not subside after a few weeks, it is appropriate to seek some kind of mental health support.” But Dr. Yehuda points out that in the initial hours or days after a major environmental event, it is too early to worry that a normal grief or stress reaction is pathological.
- Count your blessings: For those people who have not suffered extraordinary losses and are simply feeling frustrated with problems such as power outages, Dr. Charney suggests: “Observe those who are not as fortunate as you; seize the opportunity to understand that if your primary obstacle is a downed tree or transit interruption, you can accept it.” He advises making an effort to improve the situation by taking measures such as talking to your employer and discovering how you or your company can get more involved in helping out.
- Embrace your social network: “When it comes to an event like this, very few of us can cope alone. Humans need a safety net during times of stress, so avoid any urge to isolate,” Dr. Charney recommends. “Instead, connect with those around you. Realizing other people are in the same or similar situation and knowing that there are reasons to be grateful can enhance people’s resilience considerably.” Symptoms of stress are common in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster. However, if you experience prolonged mood swings, disproportionate anger, anxiety, destructive or impulsive behavior, or depression that has become chronic, our experts suggest seeking professional help. However, recognizing these signs and fostering your inner strength are your greatest tools for preventing long-lasting effects of traumatic experiences.