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Stress Management

Trauma Experts Discuss Coping With Emotional Effects of Katrina - Rita


The good news for Hurricane Katrina survivors is that most have resilience and skills that will not result in long-term effects or mental health disorders, according Menninger Clinic trauma experts in Houston. In the immediate future, many evacuees may experience a range of symptoms. Recognizing these responses and knowing they are normal can be reassuring.

  • Intense and unpredictable feelings
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Flashbacks or nightmares
  • Irritability and strained relationships with persons around you – your family, your friends or others with whom you fled the wrath of the hurricane
  • Problems sleeping or eating
  • Physical effects of stress such as headache, fast-beating heart, nausea and aggravated symptoms of a preexisting health condition

Each person will respond in his or her own way to the effects of Katrina. Persons who have been through previous traumatic losses or events may experience more intense reactions and need more time to recover.

Achieving a balance between grieving for losses and focusing on attaining basic human needs with participating in activities that take the mind off of intense feelings can help restore evacuees' well being.

Finding meaning and benevolence in the world will provide hope necessary for recovering from Katrina's effects.

"We're accustomed to thinking of traumatized persons as survivors rather than victims. Yet mere surviving is not enough: we must aspire to thrive," said Jon Allen, Ph.D., senior Menninger psychologist, author of Coping With Trauma and co-author of Restoring Hope and Trust.

Coping Strategies

  • Allow time to mourn the losses. Expect volatile emotions. Start a journal.
  • Relieve stress in healthy ways. Avoid alcohol and drugs. Exercise relieves stress.
  • Establish a routine for yourself even at a shelter or the home of someone you're staying with.
  • Coping with trauma requires hope. Borrow hope from others by talking to counselors or clergy.
  • Find confidantes. Talk about your experience in whatever way you feel comfortable.
  • Start to actively solve problems. Seek out and take advantage of relief provided.
  • Engage with children in play or recreation. They may be silently worried they will lose you, too.
  • Respond to children's questions in terms they will understand. Reassure them repeatedly that you care about them and you understand their fears.

Reaching out & giving to survivors overcomes helplessness Americans viewing the death and destruction brought to us by the media may have intense feelings of helplessness or feelings of sadness. Plan a way to lend a hand. Disasters and people in need provide an opportunity to volunteer for the first time in your life, to teach children in the family the value of giving and to provide assistance requested by the agencies, churches and synagogues, municipalities and charitable groups who are providing aid to the survivors.

"We may not know these survivors personally, but we share the human condition. Philanthropy is a powerful healing agent," said Daniel Hoover, Ph.D., psychologist with the Menninger Adolescent Treatment Program.

Impact of Media Stories on Americans

Dr. Hoover also notes that the repetitive images of the effects of Katrina can have the same impact as seeing the 9-11 terrorist attack aftermath. He advises:

  • Reduce news watching. Taking breaks will be healthy.
  • For children, expose them only to news that is appropriate for their age and development. Reassure them accordingly.
  • Be thankful. Take stock of important relationships. Regain your perspective because there are many good things in your life.
  • Talk with family members about what you would do in a disaster. Where would you keep critical documents? Are you adequately insured? Do you have a rendezvous plan if your family became separated?

Psychological Effects of Trauma Are Treatable

Post-traumatic stress disorder, other anxiety disorders, depression, self- harm, binging and purging, and chemical dependency may result from surviving Katrina or another trauma event. For more than a decade, Menninger clinicians have been developing and applying interventions for individuals with trauma- related disorders.

"Our goal in processing trauma is to make sense of trauma as a meaningful experience. The goal is not to rid the mind of traumatic memories, but rather to make it more bearable to have the memories in mind when inevitable reminders occur. A trusting environment for treatment, social support, a safe place to express emotions, a daily routine, and an understanding of the effects of trauma and treatment are so important to trauma recovery," Dr. Allen said.

"It's unrealistic to expect that you can bleach the trauma out of your mind. What treatment can help you do is learn how to cope with the experience, with the memories and to live in the present," added Lisa Lewis, Ph.D., Menninger psychologist and co-author of Restoring Hope and Trust.

Psychologists cited in the news release are Menninger mental health professionals and faculty members of the Menninger Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine.

The Menninger Clinic in Houston, Texas, is an international psychiatric center for the treatment of adolescents and adults. For more information on the Menninger Clinic, visit www.menningerclinic.com.


© 2005 Health Resources Publishing