After the Disaster: How Tornado Victims Cope with Tragedy

As the death toll grows, OCH providers and staff continue to mourn the loss and tragedy that took place less than a week ago in Joplin, Missouri. We are deeply moved by the recent tragedy and remain committed to helping the people of Joplin recover throughout the next weeks, months and years.

Below, OCH psychologist, Dr. William Myers reacts to the recent tornado in Joplin and offers insight into thoughts emotions and behaviors of the current residents. Most importantly, however, Dr. Myers provides suggestions for helping victims heal.

One of the most touching moments of television coverage of the devastating tornado hitting Joplin occurred 10 minutes after the storm cut its deadly path through the city. Veteran Weather Channel Reporter Mike Bettes and his crew set up across the street from the demolished St. John’s Hospital. The camera started to roll as Mike began to describe the horrific scenes in the background of destroyed homes, people wandering around in shock looking for loved ones, and what was a modern hospital minutes before – left in shambles by an F-5 tornado – one of the most powerful forces nature can produce. As the camera panned the scene, Mike stated: “It’s everything, it’s just completely demolished . . . All I can say is that it looks very reminiscent of what we saw last month in . . .” And then there was a period of silence. Mike was so emotional he couldn’t speak. Eventually, after taking a few deep breaths and choking back tears, Mike said: “It’s tough . . . No question about that.” Watching this I couldn’t help but feel compassion and admiration for this man who so honestly expressed the emotions that thousands would experience in the minutes, hours, and days to come.

What emotions do individuals experience from living through such a horrible, terrifying, and devastating experience? Survivors of events of this nature commonly experience a broad array of emotions including disbelief, anger, helplessness, despair and anxiety. For a period of time, many will feel intense fear whenever a thunderstorm looms on the horizon. Other individuals may experience a sense of emotional numbing, or diminished emotional responsiveness to events going on around them. Individuals may also feel a sense of detachment from the environment itself, as the world they have always known is dramatically changed, and familiar landmarks or well-known places no longer exist. Difficulty sleeping, increased irritability, poor concentration and exaggerated startle responses are all hallmarks of living through such a catastrophic event.

It is important to note, the emotions described above are normal reactions to living through a very abnormal situation. For most people, these uncomfortable emotions will dissipate over the weeks to come. During the period following a severe emotional trauma good self-care is one of the most important factors in emotional recovery. Assisting individuals in getting adequate amounts of rest, good nutrition and the provision of resources for basic physical and medical needs are among the most important components facilitating emotional recovery. It is also helpful to positively orient people to progress being made in the disaster recovery process and regaining those factors returning as much normality to life as possible. Perhaps the most essential part of the initial recovery process is reuniting individuals with family members and significant others in a supportive environment, where the process of beginning to share difficult experiences can begin.

When should an individual seek the services of a mental health provider in regard to the painful emotional consequences of such an event? Although there is no clear cut answer to this question, a good rule of thumb is whenever negative emotions cause impairment in an individual’s ability to function – characterized by difficulty interacting with family members, friends, or fulfilling personal responsibilities such as work, or caring for others.

Dr. William Myers specializes in Psychology at Ozarks Community Hospital. He received his training from the Forest Institute of Professional Psychology and is currently a member of the following groups: American Psychologist Association, National Register of Health Service Providers in Psychology, Division 22 of the American Psychologist Association, Division 40 of the American Psychologist Association, National Academy of Neuropsychology, Springfield Neuroscience Society. To contact Dr. Myers’ office, call (417) 875-4682.

OCH is forming volunteer groups to provide disaster relief after the first responders and those on site now have been exhausted.   OCH plans to schedule several trips to support the community in the coming weeks and months. Visit www.OCHonline.com for more information.

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One thought on “After the Disaster: How Tornado Victims Cope with Tragedy

  1. Pingback: Psychological First Aid | joplincriticalinfo.org

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