This is the third installment in a series of ten articles about the Discovery Channel Series, THE COLONY [airing Tuesdays at 10PM ET/PT], that follows the lives of ten volunteers living in a simulated post-catastrophic environment.
After securing the basic necessities for survival, last night’s episode found the volunteers focusing on the one creature comfort they can’t live without: a hot shower. But focusing on comfort left them open to a massive attack that threatened their long-term survival. While it may appear to be a badea to focus on creature comforts in a disaster, those affected will attempt to find some normalcy in the midst of chaos. Creating creature comfort is one way of dealing with the psychological effects of a disaster.
Catastrophic disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, may result in trauma and other psychological consequences for the people who experience them. Victims of disaster often exhibit similar needs and reactions to the traumatic event. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers this list of survivor reactions:
- Disorientation (dazed, memory loss, unable to give date/time or recall recent events…)
- Depression (pervasive feeling of hopelessness & despair, withdrawal from others…)
- Anxiety (constantly on edge, restless, obsessive fear of another disaster…)
- Acute psychosis (hearing voices, seeing visions, delusional thinking…)
- Inability to care for self (not eating, bathing, changing clothing, or handling daily life)
- Suicidal or homicidal thoughts or plans
- Problematic use of alcohol or drugs
- Domestic violence, child abuse, or elder abuse
But survivors aren’t the only ones affected by disaster. No one who experiences a disaster is left immune, and that includes responders. Disaster-response work can have a tremendous impact on responders due to the stress and urgency of the situation, and the visual stimuli they receive. Even disaster mental-health professionals share stories of experiencing difficulty sleeping and visualizing troubling events described to them by survivors of natural disasters.
The CDC recognizes that disaster stress and grief reactions are “normal responses to an abnormal situation.” Responders may experience a wide range of reactions and symptoms including anxiety, fear, memory loss, and fatigue to more serious conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), referring to the delayed reaction, sometimes for longer than six months, to a highly stressful or life-threatening event. Often survivors and witnesses (including responders) of a catastrophic disaster will show symptoms of PTSD after a few months. Due to the severity of the event or disaster, the inability of the person to avoid or cope with the trauma is such that it results in PTSD.
Research has shown that the extreme stress experienced during the event has resulted in physical damage to the hippocampus, the part of the brain that deals with the emotions of fear and stress. For a person who is suffering from PTSD, repeated flashbacks of the event are common, and being subjected to this experience will eventually cause behavioral changes including amnesia, listlessness, and a need to isolate themselves from others.
Every person deals with stress and mental trauma in different ways. Some individuals may experience an immediate reaction to the incident, others may take months or years to show any signs, and others may never show any symptoms. While stress is normal during these situations, the way it is dealt with can be a matter of life or death. Responders must be mentally, emotionally, and physically available during a disaster or emergency to effectively do their jobs. It is incumbent on each individual to be mindful of his or her reactions, as well as the reactions of other victims and responders to effectively respond and recover from the disaster event.
There are many ways of reducing, preventing, and coping with stress. According to Dr. Miatta Snetter, THE COLONY’s psychology expert, “One of the greatest strategies for both emergency workers and victims is to adopt or maintain a healthy lifestyle.” Dr. Snetter provides this list of stress-coping tips:
- Engage in some form of a self-care activity, which facilitates balancing the negative emotional impact of prolonged exposure to stressful disaster events:
- Exercising regularly. Physical activity plays a key role in reducing and preventing the effects of stress. Make time for at least 30 minutes of exercise three times per week.
- Meditation, quiet time, or participating in any number of spiritually uplifting activities is another effective method.
- Follow a healthy diet. During a disaster, people tend to eat unhealthy foods with no set schedule, because of the inherent emergent nature of disaster-intervention work. Studies show that starting the day with a healthy breakfast and eating nutritious meals and snacks throughout the day may help workers maintain adequate energy levels and facilitate mental agility and balance.
- Reduce caffeine and sugar. Some studies show that the temporary “highs” caffeine and sugar may provide often end with a crash in mood and energy.
- Avoid alcohol and drugs. Self-medicating with alcohol or drugs may appear to ease or numb internal distress and emotional dysregulation; however, the effects are only temporary, can develop more problematic dependence problems, and can actually interfere with disaster efforts by clouding one’s judgment.
- Get adequate sleep. Adequate sleep helps the mind and body recuperate from disaster work. Prolonged tiredness and lethargy may increase the effects of stress by impeding clear and focused thought processes, interfering with good judgment, and may even result in irrational thought.
The Colonists’ example is a reminder that sometimes the simplest things, such as a hot shower, can help victims and responders deal with stress and ensure their survival after a disaster.
Adam Montella is vice president of homeland security and preparedness services for Previstar Inc. and a nationally known emergency-management and homeland-security professional with more than 23 years direct experience in both government and the private sector. He served as the first general manager of emergency management for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in the period following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks and has served in many other emergency-management positions at all levels of government. A former member of the House Operations Recovery Team of the U.S. House of Representatives and of numerous local, state, national, and international emergency management associations, he also is a well known public speaker in his chosen field and a former recipient of Harvard University’s prestigious Innovations in American Government Award.