By Teresa Liccardi, M.D.
Natural disasters like Sandy leave their mark long after the event passes. We all realize that it will take months and years to recuperate from the physical burden of such devastating destruction, but such events also create a continuing emotional toll on all of us.
Our immediate response is one of relief that we survived and may be more fortunate than others. Our fortitude may lead us to say courageously: “I have been through difficulties before, and I will survive this.” Others have emotions of confusion, anger, utter helplessness, and are frightened.
It’s OK to feel all of these emotions. One feeling is not better or worse, right or wrong. Feelings and emotions are not signs of weakness. We may experience the grieving process for a short period or it may continue as a roller coaster or linger for a prolonged time. Eventually these feelings do dissipate.
What types of emotions may be experienced after a traumatic event?
Trembling, crying, stomachaches, muscle aches, headaches, pounding heartbeat, sweats, rapid breathing, irritability and faintness are normal physical symptoms of stress after trauma. These symptoms may lead to aggressive behavior, increased substance abuse, guilt, depression and anxiety reactions.
What symptoms of stress do young children and adolescents experience?
Small children may have problems sleeping or eating, or experience bedwetting and clinging. Older children may have difficulty concentrating, become withdrawn, stop talking, become irritable, act out the event and become clingy as well.
Adolescents and teenagers may have trouble concentrating and you may see a drop in grades, increased aggressive behavior, self-destructive behavior, lack of interest, social withdrawal and increased substance abuse similar to adults.
How can we take control of our healing process?
By sharing our experiences and feelings, and finding mutual comfort with friends and family members, we create a support system. If others are overwhelmed with their feelings, and more personal attention is needed, support groups are available to help us.
Volunteering or helping others gives us a sense of empowerment and refocuses our energies to positive activities.
Keeping involved in routine activities gives predictability and familiarity to these strange times.
Treating ourselves well is a necessity. Feeding into guilt and shame is self-destructive. Taking time to relax with friends and family, eating good healthy meals, and setting a routine for sleeping are essentials, not luxuries for good mental health.
We may at times need to take a break from the news and media that discuss and show pictures of the hurricane. Repetitively remembering a traumatic event may trigger or worsen anxiety. Redirecting thoughts to calmer, happier memories may alleviate some stress.
When is it time to seek professional help?
If symptoms are:
• Lasting more than six weeks
• Making it difficult to function at work and interact with family
• Causing avoidance
• Becoming more socially withdrawn
• Leading to suicidal thoughts
The Christie administration, along with federal and local authorities, has set up state resources to help New Jersey citizens to cope with stress after Hurricane Sandy.
What resources are available?
The federal government disaster crisis website for mental health needs is:
Disaster Distress website (www.disasterdistress. samhsa.gov/) and helpline that provides 24/7 crisis counseling and support resources available at 1-800-985-5990 or Text TalkWithUS to 66746.
The Department of Human Services and the Mental Health Association in New Jersey offer a toll-free Disaster Mental Health Helpline: 1-877-294-HELP (4357); TTY line 877-294-4356.
The Mental Health Association of New Jersey’s Peer Recovery Warm Line may be reached by calling (877) 292-5588. This professional program provides ongoing telephone support to mental health consumers through trained peer specialists.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is (1-800-273-TALK 8255) www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org or 911.
The New Jersey State Department of Human Services Division of Mental Health has a website devoted to the impact of stress following Hurricane Sandy: New Jersey Hope and Healing that can be found at www.state.nj.us/ humanservices/dmhs/disaster/.
The 211 help line and website (nj211.org) provides information linking people to nonprofit and community agencies.
In conclusion, everyone has been strongly affected by Hurricane Sandy. It is normal to have emotional stress. As our New Jersey State Department of Human Services Commissioner Jennifer Velez said, “It’s right and real to feel emotional, and important to know that there are state and federal resources available to help individuals experience these feelings in a safe and constructive way.”
Dr. Teresa Liccardi, who is board certified in internal medicine and nephrology, maintains a clinic for hypertension and chronic kidney disease at the Parker Family Health Center in Red Bank.