A catastrophe such as an earthquake, hurricane, tornado, fire, flood, or violent act is frightening to children and adults alike.
All people experience stressful events that can affect them both emotionally and physically. Their reactions to stress are usually brief, and they recover without further problems.
It is important to remember that trauma reactions are normal reactions to extremely abnormal circumstances. It is difficult to predict what type of trauma reactions you will experience following a disastrous event. It is important to allow yourself permission to have your reactions, and take care of them both by yourself and by asking for help from others, as best you can.
When we perceive a situation as difficult or painful, changes occur in our minds and bodies to prepare us to respond to danger. This "fight, flight, or freeze" response includes faster heart and breathing rate, increased blood to muscles of arms and legs, cold or clammy hands and feet, upset stomach and/or a sense of dread.
The same mechanism that turns on the stress response can turn it off. As soon as we decide that a situation is no longer dangerous, changes can occur in our minds and bodies to help us relax and calm down. This "relaxation response" includes decreased heart and breathing rate and a sense of well being. People who develop a "relaxation response" and other stress management skills feel less helpless and have more choices when responding to stress.
Following a disaster, a child, adolescent or adult who experiences the catastrophic event may develop ongoing difficulties known as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is psychological damage that can result from experiencing, witnessing, or participating in an overwhelmingly traumatic (frightening) event. PTSD rarely appears during the trauma itself. Though its symptoms can occur soon after the event, the disorder often surfaces several months or even years later.
Mental health professionals can be very helpful in diagnosing and treating children, teens, and adults with PTSD. With the sensitivity and support of families and professionals, individuals with PTSD can learn to cope with the memories of the trauma and go on to lead healthy and productive lives.
Keep reminding yourself that your responses are normal responses to a stressful situation. Give yourself permission to do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself. Your body and mind will tell you what you need to do -- your job is to listen to them.
Get plenty of rest when you're tired, and use the energy you have if you experience hyperactivity at times. Don't force yourself to be active if you don't have the energy, or rest when you don't feel tired. Talk to people as much as you need to. Reach out. You may experience a need to talk repetitively about the trauma. If you can find someone who is willing to listen, use her/him to talk to about how you are feeling. If you do not have anyone in your support network to use, consider calling a crisis line, going to a crisis center, or using other community resources -- they are there to help you.
Spend time with others, even if you don't feel like talking. It can be very comforting to know you're not alone. Try to find someone or someplace that feels safe and comforting to you, and spend time there. Don't make any major life decisions or big life changes if at all possible. This is not a time to put pressure on yourself to do anything out of the ordinary. Concentrate on taking care of yourself. Do things that feel good to you -- take baths, read, exercise, watch television, spend time with friends and family, fix yourself a special treat, or whatever else feels nurturing and self-caring.
Allow yourself to cry, rage, and express your feelings when you need to. Try not to numb your feelings with alcohol or drugs. This will only complicate your situation.
It is important to know that recovering from a trauma is a process that may take a long time. The initial response of disruption (perhaps alternating with numbness) may last days, weeks, or longer. Don't be surprised if you continue to experience these reactions for longer than you expected. It is impossible to predict how long you will experience effects of the trauma, but usually trauma reactions gradually decrease over time. If you experience another stressful event while recovering from trauma, you may find that your trauma reactions reappear for a while. This re-activation, or delayed trauma response, is perfectly normal.
At any time during this process, you may find it useful to ask for professional help from a counselor or mental health professional. There are some circumstances under which you should definitely get professional help:
- If you find yourself feeling suicidal or contemplating suicide
- If you find that your daily function continues to be impaired so that you cannot carry out your life tasks
- If post-trauma fears interfere with your ability to return to certain places or situations that remind you of the trauma.