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Support for those affected by disaster

  • Published
  • By Maj. Ryan L. Buhite
  • 380th Expeditionary Medical Group Psychologist
Being deployed comes with its own set of unique challenges and stressors. We learn how to adjust and cope with these stressors by employing a variety of coping skills that are in our scope of control.

Typically, these coping behaviors are effective in reducing our anxieties and help us become resilient to the daily stressors we face. However, when our families back home are in danger or stressed it can affect us even more because we have limited control on how we can help them. We're not there to hug our kids, console our spouses and do the things we want to ensure their emotional and physical needs are met.

When our families go through difficult times back home we generally feel helpless to do anything about it. While we do have limited control of how we can assist our families, there are still several ways we can aid them.

Rather than focusing on what we cannot do, it is more helpful and productive to brainstorm on things that we can do to help our loved ones in difficult times. Some of things we can do are:

1. Offer emotional support. Your family may not have enough time or energy to talk to you right after a negative event occurs, but you can ask them how you can help or support them. Though you may want to talk to them in detail about how things are going because you are not there and want to get a greater understanding of the situation, realize they may be too fatigued in that moment. Don't push too hard for information, especially right up front.

2. Help contact people who can help. Your family may be focused on dealing with the stressor and not have time to fully engage their network of social resources. Whether it's calling family on their behalf, calling Red Cross or trying to get a hold of a neighbor to lend a hand, you can assist your family in marshaling assistance.

3. Ask how you can be helpful. You may not really know what your family needs so just ask how you can help.

4. Be willing to accept that you may have limited control over the situation.

5. Offer gentle suggestions on ways that they might be able to cope. Don't push too hard but ask what they are doing to manage and if they're open to suggestions. See below for recommended coping options for you and your family.

* Seek out and connect with social support. Research suggests that finding support from others can be a major factor in helping people overcome the negative effects of a traumatic event, or just with coping with stress in general. Connecting with others in the community is important, but if the entire community is affected, even connecting with one person can have a large impact. Talking about the effects of the stressor on you and your family and expressing your emotions is also helpful.

* Establish a schedule. Natural disasters and stressors tend to disrupt your daily schedule. This adds another layer of stress and makes your life feel even more chaotic and out of control. Attempt to come up with a daily, structured schedule to help establish a sense of predictability and control. Ensure you include other healthy coping behaviors.

* Focus on self-care. Though it sounds too simplistic to be helpful, taking care of your basic physical needs is critical during times of stress. You can't cope emotionally if you're falling apart physically. Eating healthy food regularly and staying hydrated will help your body to deal with the emotional shock. Even if you're not hungry, force yourself to eat small nutritious snacks to get the needed nutrition. Also, don't forget to continue to take prescribed medications. If the situation permits, exercise is helpful as well, even if it's a brisk walk in fresh air.

* Avoid unhealthy coping strategies. People frequently resort to coping strategies that help in the short term but delay recovery and make it more likely that they will have long term problems. Excessive alcohol use, drug use, excessive sleeping and high caffeine and tobacco use may seem to help numb the pain in the short term, but they typically cause long term problems. They let people avoid coping with the unpleasant emotions in healthy ways and prevent recovery.

* Help others. Helping others increases your sense of control in the situation and gives you meaning and purpose. It also helps you with perspective taking in that you are not the only one in pain or negatively affected and that others are sometimes worse off than you. You may be able to see some positives in that you were not impacted as much as others in your community.

* Prioritize. Remember the most important things in your life and identify what you can control to protect or improve these things.

* Limit other stresses in your life. If a stressor is not impacting your top priorities in life and it is causing you stress, put it aside until later.

* Allow yourself time. Realize that recovery is a day at a time. Things will improve eventually, even if it takes weeks, months or even years in some cases. Things may never be the same, but they will be better than they are right now.

* Identify local support groups or available crisis counselors who can help. After a natural disaster, crisis counselors may be brought in to offer support and help you come up with ways of coping. We have a variety of ways to seek help here to include:

Traumatic Stress Response (TSR) Team: Comprised of mental health professionals and chaplains who have been trained to offer support and information in the face of traumatic events. Individuals can call and schedule up to 4 individual meetings with a TSR counselor. Meetings are not considered medical care and no documentation is written in your medical record. Furthermore, if an entire group is impacted by a traumatic situation, the TSR team can offer guided group discussions for the people who are most affected by the event. During duty hours, call your mental health clinic for information.

Chaplains: The chaplains offer individual counseling and can offer 100% confidentiality.

Mental Health: A psychologist is also available for individual counseling through the mental health office.

Though most trauma survivors do not require formalized mental health care, if you have thoughts of killing yourself, feel completely overwhelmed or are coping in unsafe ways, seek help immediately.

Nearly all trauma survivors experience some symptoms such as sleep problems, appetite changes, replaying the event in their head and fatigue. Normal symptoms typically start to remit over the span of three-to-four weeks. If you do not see any improvement after a month or if symptoms are getting worse, it is recommended you seek professional help.

Realize that although everyone is impacted by trauma and most people feel out of control during traumatic events, the more healthy coping behaviors you can force yourself to do, the faster you get on the road to recovery.