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Tips for Coping with Disaster-Related Stress

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Michael Spooneybarger/ CREO
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The aftermath of a disaster, terrorist attack or public health emergency can be lengthy, and the resulting trauma can affect even those not directly affected.

Two strong tornadoes – EF-3s – ripped through Century and Pensacola eight days apart – on February 15 and 23. Nobody died and there were only a handful of minor injuries. But the emotional toll for many – especially those losing homes and property – could linger for a long time to come.

“Stress is basically being overwhelmed or feeling pressed to your limits by a situation or a series of circumstances,” said Dr. David Josephs, a psychologist and Clinical Director of Lakeview Center in Pensacola.

He says stress levels are directly tied to one’s perception of the traumatic event is important in managing stressful events. Sometimes, when experiencing an especially frightening event – people have a strong and lingering stress reaction. Josephs says that can manifest itself in a number of ways, such as what he calls “Fight or Flight.”

“What can I do to deal with this event immediately? Pulling all the things together, trying to control everything,” Josephs said. “That tends to overwhelm us even more.”

Such experiences can cause development of post-traumatic stress. More commonly known to affect combat veterans, it can be just as prevalent among storm survivors. After the event, some can get antsy when clouds gather. Josephs says there are varying degrees of concern.

“People who are stressed and maybe re-experience of the events can have a hyper vigilance to things,” said Josephs. “It’s that post-traumatic symptom, but not everybody gets that. The event might be remembered as ‘I coped so well with this.’”

Even so, strong emotions – such as the jitters, sadness, or depression -- may all be part of a normal and temporary reaction. Getting help is one of the most important ways to cope, but Josephs says such help remains stigmatized in some circles.

“I think the sense is, ‘Well, if I’m asking for help, there’s something wrong with me’, which is, of course, not the truth,” Josephs said. “The people who tend to do best with traumas, whether it’s tornadoes or hurricanes, are the people who say, ‘Listen, I’ve helped all these people; can you just give me a little help here?’”

Healthy ways to cope with stress are fairly basic: eat healthy, get regular exercise and sleep, and take a break when stressed out. If you don’t want to talk to a mental health professional, you can still share with parents, friends, or clergy. And don’t forget when it comes to traumatic events, children are people too.

“Kids will take their cues from us; if they see us overwhelmed, they become more stressed,” Josephs said. “If we say ‘Well, we survived this, I still have you, I love you, we’re all still together as a family.’ Demonstrating that hopeful attitude can be tremendously healing for the children.”

This is the time of year when tornadoes can pop up, and then it’s hurricane season beginning June 1st. Dr. David Josephs says you can get mentally prepared by – first of all – having a plan.

“Have an evacuation plan; have people you can call, have people you can rely on for help,” said Josephs. “Having a plan may not mean every little thing will work, but it gives us a sense of security.”

Other methods of coping include taking breaks from the news, Internet, and conversations about the disaster, in order to avoid increasing worry and other stress.

Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.