Psychologists eye stress response to Sandy

A man walks his dog among the devastation A man walks his dog among the devastation on Illinois Avenue in Long Beach. (Nov. 7, 2012) Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

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The destruction wrought by a storm like Sandy can leave some feeling uprooted and going through the disquieting symptoms of stress disorders, said area psychologists who have studied the stress response.

Psychologists have documented the occurrence of acute post-traumatic stress — a short-term condition that could involve feelings of anxiety, hopelessness and irritability — after natural disasters. Some people go on to suffer from the more chronic post-traumatic stress disorder if they don't feel better weeks after the event.

But before that happens, and if feelings of stress continue to affect relationships or the ability to perform at school or work, experts recommend seeking help from a mental health professional.

People whose daily routines are thrown off can find themselves experiencing flashbacks, having nightmares, feeling emotionally numb, or, at the other extreme, finding themselves always on guard — as if the next disaster was at the verge of happening, psychologists said.

"The longer one is without power and feeling cold and basically abandoned, the worse things are," said Robert Motta, a psychology professor at Hofstra University who specializes in post-traumatic stress. "Everybody is different and in a large group of people, there are people who will continue to experience anxiety and a sense of dread."

A person's social support network can make all the difference in how someone experiences a disaster, experts said.

Sisters Susan Golden and Donna Goldberg found themselves without power and heat at their homes in nearby hamlets. But the stay-at-home moms told starkly different tales of the aftermath.

Golden, 43, and her family joined neighbors to ride out the storm, to share generator power and to play board games through dark nights in Commack.

"There's been a lot of bonding with the neighbors and I think that's what's kept our sanity," said Golden, mother of a 14-year-old boy and a girl who likes to say she's 91/2. "We've been talking about doing this more often."

Goldberg, 48, felt "more isolated" at her East Northport home — part of a community of larger-acreage properties where she did not see neighbors as much. Her family had to scramble to get food, warm water and shelter on different days.

A mother of two boys, 14 and 17, Goldberg ended up getting help from friends and staying with her parents in Plainview. She had felt "temporarily homeless" after several days of disruption, but things were looking up as workers restored power in her neighborhood on Tuesday.

"It will take a while to see everything come back to normal," Goldberg said.

For most people, stress symptoms will fade, but those suffering through storm-related trauma can feel better by sharing the pain and taking whatever action is within their reach to improve their situation, experts said.

"People are very resilient and will see the symptoms start to subside in the days and weeks that follow," said Simon A. Rego, director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. "You need to have a good social network of people so you can talk and express your feelings about what happened."

Children in particular, experts said, need to be reassured that life will return to normal, psychologists said.

People will go through normal phases of distress that may involve increased fear, frustration and the ensuing fatigue of disrupted routines, said Manhattan psychologist Robin F. Goodman, a member of the Disaster Response Network of the New York State Psychological Association.

"If people get connected and get support a lot of those overwhelming emotions will be diminished," Goodman said. "We need to share stories and share a laugh, because it's also a reality check — where you know 'I am not the only one going through these problems.' "

Coping with storm stress

These are some tips from psychologists on how to cope with stress and prevent it from developing into a chronic condition affecting your mental health:

— Stay connected to loved ones and friends. Talk to your neighbors. Share stories about your predicament and about other matters in your life.

— Reassure children. Let your little ones know that these are temporary disruptions. Keep a calm demeanor to inspire confidence in them.

— Maintain a healthy routine. Get your meals at the usual times, get your sleep and try to keep some structure to your days.

— Instead of feeling helpless, take small steps to improve your situation, whether that means restocking food supplies, reporting problems in your neighborhood to the authorities or documenting and reporting losses for insurance purposes. If it's within your reach to help others, do so and ask those who are elderly or confined to their homes if they need assistance.

— Ask for and accept help. If you are feeling overwhelmed, contact friends and family or the appropriate authorities to seek help. Many may be willing to help you if you share your needs.

— If worry, anxiety and hopelessness persist and seem to worsen rather than improve, seek help from a mental health professional.

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