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Protecting emotional and mental health after disaster

November 05, 2019 | Heather Shannon
woman watching television news about a disaster

Earthquakes. Wildfires. Mass shootings. Bombings. Terrorism.

There’s a lot of bad news in the world today, and whether we’re directly affected or not, it sometimes may be causing us mental and emotional trauma, says UCI psychologist E. Alison Holman, PhD.

That trauma may lead to symptoms of acute stress, which could result in serious health problems later.

Holman, an associate professor at the UCI Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing, has studied disasters of all kinds for nearly three decades, exploring their impact on individuals, surrounding communities and society as a whole.

The impact of disaster on an individual

As a psychologist writing her dissertation years ago, Holman became interested in the process of temporal disintegration, in which one’s sense of time is slowed and the past and future fade away in the face of disaster.

“We all rely on having memory of our past and a sense of where we’re going,” she explains. “Many people who are traumatized get stuck. The present stays seared in your memory.

“Eventually, the event becomes part of your past, but it’s hard to move on or think differently about it. People may have more difficulty coping.”

Not always a conscious process

Many people may not realize what’s happening or how an event might have changed their thinking.

Holman likens it to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), in which one experiences an event over and over without realizing what’s happening.

Temporal disintegration also doesn’t happen to everyone.

“Some people may experience trauma and be well-balanced with a sense of the past, present and future.”

Dangers of media exposure

What an individual experiences after a violent event or a disaster may also affect an entire community in similar ways, Holman says.

Some of this results from nearly 24-hour media coverage.

She cites the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as an example: After the first plane hit the World Trade Center, many people called friends and family to talk about what was happening. When the second plane hit the towers, many more people saw it happen on live television.

“It was a national, collective stress,” she says.

After the Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013, Holman’s team studied the impact of media exposure on people across the country, using the Stanford Acute Stress Reaction Questionnaire. The results were decisive.

“There was a clear relationship. People who had six or more hours of media exposure on a daily basis in the week following the attack had the highest levels of acute stress.”

In fact, those who watched six or more hours of media coverage of the bombing reported more acute stress symptoms than people who were actually at the scene.

Famous images from major disasters also have been shown to trigger PTSD symptoms.

“Images of dead children and pictures including blood are associated with greater distress,” she says. “You can experience PTSD-like symptoms and fears about the future by seeing too many of them.”

Focusing on media reports can also create a vicious cycle in which one becomes more worried after a disaster. People are likely to watch more media and, as a result, compound their stress further.

Health effects of sustained acute stress

Holman’s research has also focused on the physical health impact of acute stress related to disasters.

After Sept. 11, her team found that acute stress can lead to new onset cardiovascular ailments within three years, including:

“What we’re seeing in our studies is that extensive media exposure is related to people’s physical and mental health downstream.”

Tips for protecting your mental health

Holman has several strategies for people who may be struggling in the wake of exposure to stressful events.

  • Don’t overdose on the media. Watch just enough to find out what you need to know.
  • Limit your exposure to graphic images. Try to avoid them by following reputable news organizations that give their readers a choice to see such images.
  • Talk to someone you trust. People who are struggling may benefit from talking to others who have been through something similar, Holman says.
  • Make use of community organizations, or start one yourself. Holman’s research has found that the more community organizations there are, the better off a community is.
  • Consider counseling. If you are having trouble focusing and doing what you need to do, there are several different types of therapies for trauma-related symptoms that have been proven effective. The sooner you seek therapy, the better off you will be, says Holman.

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