You know that feeling you get when you meet someone, and you are quite sure you’ve met them before – but maybe that was someone who looked and sounded a lot like them? Imelda looked and sounded and felt an awful lot like someone we in the Houston area have known all too well – Harvey. Maybe you were intimately acquainted with Harvey, and you felt the same feelings when Imelda threatened or showed up. Maybe Harvey made your heart race, but didn’t flood you, and now you are going through all the things you saw on the news post Harvey – wading through soggy belongings and ripping out sheetrock. Maybe (and I pray this is not true for you), Harvey beat you up pretty badly, and now, just as you were starting to feel safe, Imelda has come in for a second punch, leaving you feeling water-logged and broken.
Natural disasters such as floods or hurricanes can cause widespread distress, anxiety, and even Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the affected population. Repeated exposure to traumatic incidents ups the risk for emotional difficulties or mental illness. The Houston area is at high risk, for sure. Knowing that, it’s important that we take care of and extend grace to ourselves and our neighbors, and be watchful for signs that we, or someone we care about needs more help.
For many adults and children alike, the immediate reaction to a traumatic event is detachment or numbness. This is our brain’s natural response, and allows us to focus on practical recovery and/or survival. When we are past the initial crisis, though, other symptoms of distress can set in, including:
Unpredictable and intense feelings of anxiety, irritability, or sadness that are unlike those experienced day to day. In children, this may look like oppositional behavior, defiance, or even tantrums.
Difficulty maintaining relationships. Irritability and increased conflict are common, as are withdrawal and isolation from friends and family.
Physical symptoms such as nausea or headaches that are not attributable to a physical condition.
Disrupted sleep or appetite. Some people may sleep more, and some less. Some may overeat, and some may lose their appetite.
Increased environmental sensitivities. In the case of the storms, these could include thunder or other loud noises, sounds of rain, or certain smells. These may stimulate memories of the storm, creating heightened anxiety. These “triggers” may be accompanied by fears that the stressful event will be repeated. Children may show avoidance of these triggers by covering their ears or eyes. If they were flooded at school, they might resist attending.
Repeated, vivid, or intrusive memories of the event that lead to physical reactions such as rapid heartbeat or sweating. These may be conscious memories, or those in dreams.
Although children and adolescents can respond in ways similar to adults, they may also show:
Regressive behavior. Acting or talking like they did at a younger age
Repetitive reenactment. Acting out parts of the storm or its aftermath in their play.
How Can We Recover?
Psychological research shows that, fortunately, these symptoms subside in most people within weeks to a few months. This is even true after a repeated distressing event like Imelda after Hurricane Harvey. There are important ways we can increase the chances of recovery after the storm. Some of those include:
Giving yourself some grace. This. Is. Difficult. Whether you have experienced one or two floods; whether you took in an inch of water or six feet – you have losses to grieve and a road to recovery ahead. Take it easy with the expectations you place on yourself.
Sharing your story. You did not ask for this, and it is not your fault. Talking about it openly can help. Tell your friends and family what happened and how you feel. If it’s the second time you’ve dealt with a hurricane, talk about the similarities and differences. Telling your story is part of a healthy healing process. Shame and withdrawal stall healing like a storm stalled over a neighborhood. If your children are affected, let them express how they experienced Imelda and make sure they know you are listening. Keep in mind, they may also share their stories in their play and art.
Asking for help. After Harvey, help was around every corner. It may be a little less obvious now because of the numbers and areas hit by Imelda. Ask your friends, family, church, school, and other community for any assistance you may need. People find great joy and meaning in serving. Allowing them to help is a gift from you to them.
Keeping to routine. When your world is turned upside down, there is great comfort in predictability and familiarity. Did you go to yoga on Monday mornings before the storm? Keep going, even if it means delaying getting the house back together by that hour you are gone. Was Friday pizza and a movie night with the kids? It’s still Friday… Tailgating? It’s still happening, and you are still invited. Show up and engage with these aspects of your life that are rejuvenating and fulfilling.
Engaging in healthy behaviors to enhance your ability to cope with excessive stress. Download a meditation app like Breathe or Calm. Eat as well-balanced a diet as you can manage. Exercise. Avoid alcohol and drugs as they can distract you from practicing healthy coping mechanisms, and delay grieving and moving forward.
Avoiding making big decisions. You are already in the throes of decision-making, and your cognitive and emotional resources are tapped out. Even exciting decisions like where to go on vacation may be taxing, and it is likely that your judgment is not at it’s best. Avoid the additional strain of potential regret, and hold off on buying a new car, changing careers, or making permanent relationship decisions.
To Sum Up…
Know that your emotional responses to this storm are likely “normal,” and will resolve in a few weeks. If you are concerned about your response, though, or you are still struggling with your reaction in a month or so, please reach out for help. Houston Family Counseling is part of your community; we intimately know disaster survival, and we would be honored to walk alongside you or your loved ones in their recovery.