Managing traumatic stress: After the hurricanes

It is common for people to experience very strong emotional reactions with the arrival of a hurricane and its accompanying damage to homes and community infrastructures. If you are experiencing distress in the wake of the recent hurricanes, you are not alone. Understanding common responses to extreme events can help you to cope effectively with your feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Putting into practice some of the tips in this guide can help you along the path to managing the storm's aftermath and feeling better.

There are a number of steps you can take to help restore emotional well-being and a sense of control in the wake of the hurricane or other traumatic experience, including the following:

  • Recognize that this is a challenging time but one that you can work to manage. You've tackled hardships at other times in your life. Tap into the skills you used to get through past challenges.
  • Allow yourself to mourn the losses you have experienced. Recognize that you may experience a variety of emotions and their intensity will likely less over time.
  • Take a news break. Watching replays of footage from the hurricane can make your stress even greater. Often, the media tries to interest viewers by presenting worst case scenarios. These may not be representative of your home or community.
  • Ask for support from people who care about you and who will listen and empathize with your situation. But keep in mind that your typical support system may be weakened if those who are close to you also have experienced or witnessed the hurricane.
  • Find ways to express yourself when ready. Communicating your experience through talking with family or close friends, keeping a diary, or other forms of self-expression may be a source of comfort. Find out about local support groups led by appropriately trained and experienced professionals. Support groups are often available in communities following large-scale disasters. People can experience relief and comfort connecting with other hurricane survivors who have had similar reactions and emotions. These can be especially helpful for people with limited personal support systems.
  • Engage in healthy behaviors to enhance your ability to cope with excessive stress. Eat well-balanced meals and get plenty of rest. If you experience difficulties sleeping, you may be able to find some relief through relaxation techniques. Avoid alcohol and drugs since these can increase a sense of depression and/or impede you from doing what is necessary to be resilient and cope with events.
  • Establish or reestablish routines such as eating meals at regular times and following an exercise program. Take some time off from the demands of daily life by pursuing hobbies or other enjoyable activities.
  • If possible, avoid major life decisions such as switching jobs because these activities tend to be highly stressful.

How psychologists can help

Individuals with prolonged distress related to the hurricane that disrupt their daily functioning may consult with a trained and experienced mental health professional. Psychologists and other appropriate mental health providers help educate people about normal responses to extreme stress and make a plan for moving forward. Psychologists can help by providing evidence-based treatments to help people manage their emotions around traumatic events. Most commonly, psychologists use therapy (sometimes referred to as psychotherapy or talk therapy). There are many different styles of therapy, but the psychologist will choose the type that best addresses the person’s problem and best fits the patient’s characteristics and preferences.

Some common types of therapy are cognitive, behavioral, cognitive-behavioral, interpersonal, humanistic, psychodynamic or a combination of a few therapy styles. Therapy can be for an individual, couples, family or other group. Some psychologists are trained to use hypnosis, which research has found to be effective for a wide range of conditions including pain, anxiety and mood disorders.

For some conditions, therapy and medication are a treatment combination that works best. For people who benefit from medication, psychologists work with primary care physicians, pediatricians and psychiatrists on their overall treatment. Two states, New Mexico and Louisiana, have laws allowing licensed psychologists with additional, specialized training to prescribe from a list of medications that improve emotional and mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety.

To find a psychologist in your area, visit the Psychologist Locator.