How Sandy still affects our psyches.
By Kristine Keller
It started out like any other weekend. The downtown streets were chockablock with hipsters sporting ironic T-shirts and enduring long waits for a dinner table at Rubirosa. The pulse of downtown throbbed so loudly I could hear it from my fifth-floor walk-up. And then, a flat line. An abrupt horizontal strip on the city’s electrocardiogram. A slow and steady storm by the sweetly deceiving name of Sandy would turn lower Manhattan’s lights black, snatching the city’s voice and unleashing a string of catastrophic events in its wake. Lower Manhattan’s streets looked like a post-apocalyptic universe where the only sounds to be heard were the hushed whispers of trees rustling and the light footsteps of confused residents searching for a candle-lit bodega serving hot coffee.
Though it’s easy to forget a natural disaster’s impact once the shards of broken glass are swept away and refueled taxis frenetically beep their way down Houston again, the stressful aftermath of such an event can leave many feeling beaten and broken. I was young when Hurricane Andrew tore my Miami home away from every side like a film set dismantling after the director calls “cut!” But I’ll never forget the look on my mother’s face when we returned after a safe evacuation only to find our beloved home and possessions destroyed. I’ll always remember her rivulets of tears that formed after finding the water-stained pages of her father’s first published psychology manuscript ripped into shreds. It’s stories like these that have sparked attention from researchers following the stress of a natural disaster. In recent years, research has been devoted to cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a direct result of natural disasters. For those in the hard-hit Northeast and mid-Atlantic, PTSD may be a harrowing consequence.
Nearly two thirds of Americans will experience trauma in their lifespan, and following a natural disaster, PTSD is the most common mental psychopathology experienced. The symptoms of PTSD, as recognized by the Diagnostic Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), begin anywhere from right after the traumatic event to months or sometimes years later. For storm victims, symptoms of PTSD might include re-experiencing the traumatic event in the form of memories, dreams or fantasies so vivid, patients might think they are actually reliving the traumatic incident. Those affected might also eschew activities that remind them of the tragedy. This could mean avoiding restaurants visited the night before the storm and abstaining from other activities once deemed pleasurable. Feeling detached, hyper-aroused or unable to concentrate are also salient symptoms of disaster PTSD. Anyone exhibiting PTSD symptoms for longer than one month should visit a trained medical clinician for a fully formed treatment plan.
Psychologists emphasize that those who believe they are capable of overcoming severe stress are more inclined to recover than those who believe they exercise zero control over life’s negative events. Luckily several organizations are working diligently to rebuild storm-torn communities. It will take time to recover, but New Yorkers are known for strength, grit and resilience, and it’s this power that we must be sure to constantly restore.
Kristine Keller received her master’s in psychology from New York University. She currently works at Vanity Fair.
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