Trauma and Storms: Coping with Disaster

​The destruction of the December storms and tornados is heartbreaking. Homes and businesses destroyed, lives lost, and life has been disrupted for many. We have heard of heroic and resilient efforts. Sadly, people may be living in shelters for weeks or months while regrouping and the impact felt for the next several years. There's a feeling of being totally overwhelmed, hopelessness, and helplessness. Those of us who were not directly impacted are glued to images on television bringing us ever closer to the devastation.

How do we cope with such chaos, devastation, and destruction? Emotionally, the psychological phenomenon can be called critical incident stress or traumatic event stress. It is hard to get a handle on how to re-gain a sense of control and predictability. Information can often help us understand the complex feelings that overwhelm us.

For those faculty and staff who have experienced these losses firsthand, they will experience sometimes overwhelming grief and are at risk for sadness, despair, and the potential for clinical depression. Their lives have been turned upside down and they will not return to 'normal' anytime soon. Those in shelters must rebuild their lives from scratch. To cope with this requires incredible courage and resilience.

Traumatic events, including the aftermath, invoke the most basic threats--that of survival notes author and psychologist Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, Ph.D. in her book Shattered Assumptions. There are occasions when we are forced to recognize the risk and real possibility of serious injury, the randomness of events, and our own mortality. Trauma can produce symptoms in individuals including anxiety, fears, depression, nightmares, nausea, memory loss, identification with the victims, flashbacks, fear of repetition, fatigue, and problem-solving difficulties. While these can be a normal response to such an acute and traumatic stress, it remains extremely distressing.

If you have a colleague who was impacted by these storms, reach out and provide whatever support you can, concretely or emotionally. This impact may be felt for months or years to come. Survivors of such trauma need to utilize all the support available. The United Way 211 Helpline is a free and confidential service that helps locate local current resources and keeps updated as additional ones become available.

This can be a very difficult time, especially around the holidays. For psychological support, Vanderbilt faculty and staff can call Work/Life Connections-EAP at 936-1327 and make a confidential appointment to meet with one of our counselors.