Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Dealing with Trauma after a Disaster

(This is my article published on the Working People section of the Philippine Daily Inquirer on November 22, 2009 and was republished on August 18, 2013. Some portion in this article were updated by author Richard H. Mamuyac.)

Cambridge Dictionary Online defines trauma as a severe shock and pain caused by an extremely upsetting experience.

There is still almost two more months to go before we bid goodbye to 2013 but many Filipinos are already wishing that this year would finally end.  Is it really because of the "unlucky no. 13" or it's just that our country was at the spot where the a killer earthquake and super typhoons Maring and Yolanda (the strongest storm to be ever recorded in history) hit. Thousands of lives and millions of dollars worth of infrastructures and crops were lost. Many were left homeless and starving.

But a more agonizing effect continues to hound the victims of the calamity -- a burden that a person will bear for a long period of time until he or she can deal and overcome it. How do you heal the wounds inflicted by the experience of losing loved ones, their homes and valued possessions from an unexpected tragedy?

“It really depends on the extent of the trauma,” said Metro Psych Facility in-house psychiatrist Dr. Myra Lopez–Roces, MD. “The personality of the person may also be a factor of how and when he can overcome the trauma. For example, if he already has nervousness or anxiety issues prior to the trauma, of course this will aggravate the condition.”

Signs of trauma

Roces said that a person who is experiencing trauma would manifest signs like worrying, tenseness of the body, shortness of breath and having a hyper vigilant personality. For the victims of the recent storms, she observed that even a slight rainfall or the noise of a door being opened can lead to panic. This is called anticipatory anxiety or fear that something traumatic will happen again.

She also added that depression comes when the person starts to have changes in his appetite, sleeping patterns and level of energy. Aside from depression, other common reactions experienced by disasters victims are (1) denial that such an experience occurred; (2) anger that can be directed towards the disaster, God, others or to themselves; (3) shock over the suddenness of the disaster; and (4) survival guilt - they survived and others did not.

The quality of work of employees will definitely be affected if they are coping with trauma. Sometimes they do not show emotions but are noticeably having difficulties focusing and concentrating on what they are doing.

Do’s and don’ts

Roces notes that family and friends can help the victims in handling the trauma. They should listen to the victims as they recount their experience. Healing takes place when victims tell their stories, thereby releasing emotions that they had kept to themselves.

But Roces also reminds us that this might not work in all cases, especially if the victim is suffering from Acute Stress Disorder caused by being exposed to a traumatic event.

According to Psychnet-UK.com, professional help is a must if the person has at least three of the following symptoms:

• a subjective sense of numbing, detachment, or absence of emotional responsiveness
• a reduction in awareness of his or her surroundings (e.g., "being in a daze")
• depersonalization - inability to recall an important aspect of the trauma
• the patient persistently re-experienced the traumatic event in at least one or more of the following ways: recurrent images, thoughts, dreams, illusions, flashback episodes, or a sense of reliving the experience; or distress on exposure to reminders of the traumatic event
• marked avoidance of stimuli that arouse recollections of the trauma (e.g., thoughts, feelings, conversations, activities, places, people).

Roces said that in these cases counseling needs to be supported with medication for the treatment of the victims. This process would sometimes take up to 9 months to 2 years, depending on the degree of the disorder, for the success of the treatment. If warranted, employed victims are advised to take a leave of absence for a period of time.

In the website of safetyatworkblog.wordpress.com, writer Kevin Jones shared his learning from the online video “Recovery from Trauma: What Works.” He wrote that in the early stages of trauma, people should avoid the following things that would only worsen the situation:

• alcohol and drugs
• keeping overly busy
• involvement in stressful situations
• stopping yourself doing things you enjoy
• engaging in risky activities.

Dealing with the trauma after the storm is not an easy task. Overcoming it is another story. People will recover at a different rate and it will really help if they will be surrounded by caring and understanding people who will be with them during these dark hours of their lives. It is not only trauma that we want to heal. We actually want to heal the whole person who wants to live again after his life was interrupted.

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