Checklist: Common reactions, positive coping, and when to seek help

A new week is with us. So, here’s a heads-up.

Distress is an understandable and normal response to major disasters. Common causes of distress may be related to having been directly at risk from the earthquake and aftershocks, being concerned about family and friends who may be affected, witnessing injuries and distress to others, or being caught up in the panic and confusion that often follows. In addition, feelings and memories related to previous experiences of disasters or other grief and loss may also resurface. Most people experience acute stress during emergency events and most manage with courage and strength. However, sometimes it is only later when the distressing images are recalled that some of the stressful effects start to show.

While most people will manage with the support of family and friends, there are times when extra help and support may be needed. Those who have feared losing loved ones, have been seriously injured, or are highly distressed by the aftershocks, will often need particular support and care. Our communities have a history of coping with uncertain and troubled times with courage and strength.

There are three important things you need to know:

  • normal reactions to this type of emergency
  • positive ways of coping
  • when to get extra help.

Normal reactions to a disaster like this include:

  • shock and numbness, often fear at first
  • horror and grief when the extent of loss is realised
  • frustration, anger, helplessness and even sometimes despair when it all seems too much
  • sometimes fears or old worries may resurface.

These feelings usually settle over the early weeks.

Positive ways of coping may be:

  • supporting one another, especially in the family and in your community
  • providing emotional support – comforting each other
  • carrying out practical tasks – tackling the jobs that need to be done a bit at a time and counting each success
  • sharing your experience and feelings with others – a bit at a time when it is right for you
  • looking after your own and your family’s general health – rest, exercise, food and company all help (being careful not to drink too much alcohol).

Sometimes, post disaster stress can be ongoing and affect your physical and mental health and wellbeing.

It’s time to ask for help if:

  • your sleep is badly affected
  • you feel very distressed, irritable, on edge or agitated much of the time
  • you feel hopeless, despairing, miserable or that you can’t go on
  • you have trouble concentrating, are distracted and cannot do your usual tasks
  • you feel your health is not so good
  • you have recurrent nightmares or intrusive thoughts about the earthquake
  • you have new symptoms or old problems may seem to have returned, eg. breathing, heart and stomach problems.
  • For children, withdrawal, aggressive behaviours, difficulties at school, problems separating from parents or going to sleep may indicate the need for help.

This is just the brief version. If you want more detail about specific topics, check out the other posts on this blog. The home page will have a list of recent posts in the right-hand column. Or you can click here for the fact-sheets at the Ministry of Health. I compiled these too.

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Prime Minister John Key gives good counsel

I think Prime Minister John Key made some very helpful statements yesterday regarding how some people are reacting to the earthquake and subsequent aftershocks and how they might get help. Here is some of the quote:

Prime Minister John Key is calling on those still residing in Canterbury to consider seeking counselling to deal with the stress of the earthquake and continuing aftershocks.

Speaking to RadioLIVE’s Marcus Lush this morning Mr Key said that the “compounding increase in anxiety that is taking place because of the aftershocks” only became clear to him upon visiting the region to assess the fallout of Saturday’s quake.

“People are living in slightly damaged houses, so they’re thinking ‘I’m living in a damaged structure, I’m fearful of another earthquake’ and of course they’re getting really upset, and that’s really one of the reasons why we’re asking people to reach out and get some counselling,” said Mr Key.

Do you notice how he doesn’t talk about trauma?

He talks about anxiety and getting really upset.

Mr Key is getting good advice (or he knows this himself, possibly).

Talking about trauma is not very helpful, and it is not true for the majority of people either. In this post, I point out how research predicts that most people who are living through this unfolding event will be OK. They may have some ups and downs and some wobbles along the way, the dominant story is resilience for the majority, particularly if they have supportive friends, families, clubs , societies, church groups, and voluntary or government-sponsored groups standing strong beside them. Trauma symptoms affect the minority but we of course need to ensure that we can identify and help these people early on in the piece.

Mr Key gets this.

Talking about trauma turns people off from looking for help. However, anxiety and uncertainty will be all too common. This is just a normal reaction to a highly unusual and sometimes frightening set of events. Getting good information about why people are feeling, thinking and behaving like they are, that they are not alone in experiencing this, and that there are concrete things that can be done, along with caring, compassionate people (sometime professionals) around to help them work through what they need to do – this is what Mr Key is getting at.

People to hear their story, when they’re ready.

At their own pace.

Those people are around – you might already know them.

Just don’t let anyone rush you.