Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: The Anniversary of Hurricane Sandy: Strategies for Revisiting Natural Disaster

tree downWe are approaching the first Anniversary Event of Hurricane Sandy. As a hurricane that spanned many states making landfall on Oct 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy killed at least 117 people in the United States and 69 more in Canada and the Caribbean.

According to a report released by the National Hurricane Center, Sandy is expected to rank as the second-costliest tropical cyclone on record, after Hurricane Katrina of 2005.  Sandy is also the deadliest U.S. hurricane outside of the souther states since Hurricane Agnes of 1972.

Well beyond the official reports are the personal memories and stories of the surge, the floods, evacuations, red cross shelters, burning homes, unclean water, mounds of waster, erased communities, devastated shore lines, and millions without power, gas or the means to rebuild.

Resonating with those who have suffered from natural disasters throughout the country and the world, many victims of Hurricane Sandy are still on a journey of recovery.

The anniversary brings with it a mixture of gratitude, hope, respect for human resilience as well as anxiety about the possibility of life’s unexpected and traumatic events.

How do we cope with the anniversary of a natural disaster that has touched so many in the places people need to feel joy and safety–home, community and nature?

 Strategies for Revisiting Natural Disaster

Recognize Anniversary Reactions in Self and Family

  • What is an Anniversary Reaction? Around the time of an Anniversary Event of a traumatic event or natural disaster, many people experience anniversary reactions. These reactions are common and are often the same physical and emotional reactions they may have felt during or in the aftermath of the disaster. Trauma experts say, “ the body remembers.”
  • These reactions may include: Hyperarousal (anxiety, sleep problems, startle response, concentration problems); intrusive imaging (memories, flashbacks and dreams); numbing, avoidance and constriction; and changes in mood. Such anniversary reactions in addition to feelings of fear, anger, guilt, and grief may occur before or after an anniversary event-be it a year or five years later.
  • These reactions make sense. While they may be frightening and unexpected, these reactions make sense physically and psychologically. Unlike the daily events in our lives, we register trauma and disaster differently. In a way, an anniversary event is an opportunity, albeit disruptive, to integrate what the body and mind still holds. Recovery takes time. 

Don’t be Afraid to Share Your Stories

  • Often the Anniversary of a Natural Disaster stirs memories that need to be shared and told. This is an important part of recovery. Families, community groups, friends, even online groups benefit from taking turns sharing their stories and supporting each other as they remember how they coped, how frightened they might have been, the hardships they faced—and how they managed.
  • When someone puts words to what they have faced or may still be feeling in the company of others who listen and understand, both physically and emotionally, they start to find a way to integrate this unexpected event into their life story.
  • Often children need to hear the stories in a way that best suits their age. Often children will share things a year later that they did not have the words or maturity to express a year ago.
  • It is valuable to remember that everyone experiences a traumatic event in their own way, with their own set of feelings and recovers in their own time.

Turn UP the Volume on Self-Care and Family Care

  • Given the déjà vu of mind and body you may experience, pay special attention to physical and psychological safety.  Be good to yourself and encourage family members to regulate stress and stay healthy by sleeping, eating, exercise and activities.
  • Children may need extra support and connection around the time of Anniversary Events. They need parents or loving adults to make sense of the memories and images of the event at different stages in their development.
  • Use and model activities that lower stress. Cook something special, read a great book, listen to music, go back to the beach, go to church, enjoy a family movie night.

Regulate The Use of Media

With any Anniversary Event, there is usually a continual stream of media on TV, computers, cell phones etc. While the media serves an important role, the constant images, facts and reminders can be overwhelming or depressing. It is very important to moderate your use of the media so that it serves you by giving you information, and/or invites revisiting of the event without bombarding or re-traumatizing you or other family members.

In handling the media, young children and the elderly often don’t have a firm grasp of time and may fear the storm is happening in the present. They need parents or loving adults to make sense of the memories and images of the event.

Use a Flexible Perspective

Recent research by Bonanno & colleagues (2011) suggests that the most effective way to recover from traumatic events is to have a flexible perspective. This means the entitlement to move between remembering and mourning the event with a “ Trauma Focus” and the ability to look away from the event to your present life or plans for the future -” Forward Focus.”

In other words – if you won’t let yourself think of the disaster, it will stay frozen and never become integrated into the experiences of your life and if the only thing you do is think about the hurricane and can’t look beyond it – you won’t use your strength to find a future beyond this traumatic event.

Recognize Your Strengths

As you face the Anniversary of Hurricane Sandy or any Natural Disaster take stock of your personal resiliency. Don’t forget to draw upon your intelligence, spirituality, creativity, sense of humor, marriage partners, hobbies and social networks — to support coping.

Reach for Care When Needed

The recovery from natural disaster takes times because it brings with it the reality of devastation and the necessity of restoration and rebuilding—physically and psychologically. If you find that emotionally you are struggling with depression, grief, continued trauma reactions or physical injury or illness, seek professional help.

Anniversary Events stop time and move us to remember and revisit a traumatic life event. At the same time, they make possible collective action, planning and support.

It is another year, another day and another opportunity to heal and to hope.