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The psychology of disaster

Fortunately, for most of us, we learn about disasters through movies or books and not direct experience. These renditions are dramatic snapshots of lives, events, and heroism, but rarely do they show us the long-term impact of disasters on wildlife, psychology, culture, environment or finance.

While much has been written in the field of psychology about resilience, the disaster environment provides an active and ongoing opportunity to reframe, reorganize and construct new meaning in a compressed timeline. In Japan, the disruption they face challenges, as a society, their capacities to respond to widespread loss of human life, environmental devastation and infrastructure. The sheer magnitude of the natural and man-made catastrophe boggles the mind for those of us who are, for the present, frozen bystanders. While we may share some of the intense anxiety and fear, we cannot grasp the full impact, both physiologically and psychologically to this country.

Natural disasters are far from rare events, killing a million people a decade

What is a disaster? One definition is “A disaster is the tragedy of a natural or human-made hazard (a hazard is a situation which poses a level of threat to life, health, property, or environment) that negatively affects society or environment. Natural disasters are far from rare events, killing a million people a decade and leaving many more homeless, with costs reaching into the billions.

Universal Crisis

The events unfolding in Japan would be considered a “universal crisis” – a crisis so catastrophic that anyone living through it would experience tragic reactions. It strips everyone experiencing it of safety, security, and threatens survival, regardless of an individual’s level of skill or cognitive resources. There are no “solutions” to be found in such a disaster, and therefore trauma survivors are disrupted in their capacity to “plan” such a solution.

Some natural disasters are predictable, like hurricanes, giving people sufficient time to purchase emergency supplies, secure their homes, and leave the vulnerable area. For others, the notice is extremely short or absent altogether. Earthquakes and tsunamis fall into that latter category.

…Radiation slowly impact the health of people…

Technological disasters like radiation leaks can contaminate ground soil and waterways, immediately killing wildlife and humans close to the disaster site, while silently impacting life in ways that are hard to detect. Unlike earthquakes and tsunamis, chemical and radiation disasters can devastate the geographic area, and alter the ecological balance leaving it uninhabitable.

In contrast to immediate threat of death, radiation slowly impact the health of people both close to the site, and hundreds of miles away in unpredictable patterns depending on wind and rain.

Phases of Disaster

Emotional reactions to disasters have predictable patterns according to some researchers. Starting from left to right, this graph illustrates the general progression of the disaster effects and reactions on communities.

Pre-Disaster Phase:

The amount of warning a community receives varies by the type of disaster. Perceived threat varies depending on many factors.

Impact Phase:

The greater the scope, community destruction, and personal losses associated with the disaster, the greater the psychosocial effects.

Heroic Phase:

This phase is characterized by high altruism among both survivors and emergency responders. Emergency responders actively begin search and rescue missions, direct assistance to people, and resources begin arriving. During this phase people struggle to stay alive. Goal is to prevent loss of lives and to minimize property damage.

Honeymoon Phase:

Here survivors feel a short-lived sense of optimism. May last from two weeks to two months. These massive relief efforts enhance the morale of survivors, and people are appreciative of that help. Survivors hope things will recover quickly and life will return to normal.

Disillusionment Phase:

Over time, survivors go through an inventory process where they recognize the limits of available disaster assistance. Optimism fades, as the realization of what happens begins to settle in, and disappointment, resentment, anger and frustration become evident. This leads into the Disillusionment Phase where survivors are coming to grips with reality of their situation. This phase may last from several months to a year or more. Certain trigger events, such as the anniversary of the disaster, can prompt survivors to re-experience negative emotions related to the disaster.

It can be considered the “second disaster,” as help happens slowly, organizational assistance is tedious, and recovery delays set in.

Reconstruction Phase:

Gradually, the emergency responders leave, and people start to assimilate the shock of what has happened and begin to reconcile themselves to the “new reality.” Survivors experience setbacks and work through their grief, eventually readjusting to their new surrounding and situations. People realize that they must do for themselves and grief and anger is gradually replaced by acceptance. No miracles happen. Those left in place will have to solve problems and rebuild their shattered lives. It is a process that will continue for several years as the “new normal” functioning is gradually reestablished.

Coping with Disasters

Coping can be thought of in various ways. One way is as an “ego process” that operates to reduce emotional tension, but here we’re equating “coping” with “mastery” over a stressful situation (Folkman and Lazarus 1980). Others consider coping as a “trait” (Conway & Terry, 1992), but people don’t respond identically to all stressful life events. Finally, coping can be seen as an interaction between how a person sizes up an event as impacting their decision-making.

Goodness of Fit

An individual’s coping mechanisms have been cited as an important factor in helping disaster victims adjust to this dramatically new environment. Coping is defined as “constantly changing cognitive and behavioral efforts to manage specific external and internal demands that are appraised as taxing or exceeding the resources of the person” (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984, p. 141). It can take one of two general forms: emotionally-focused (internal emotional states) or problem-focused (altering the stressor by direct action). We might think of this theory of coping as a psychological serenity prayer:

–Reinhold Niebuhr

Some researchers propose that those who attempt to change the changeable will adapt better than those who effort to change what cannot be changed. In the same way, those who attempt to accept or reframe a situation which cannot be changed will also cope better than those who attempt by mental or physical effort, to change what cannot be impacted. This is known as the “goodness-of-fit” hypothesis (Lazarus and Folkman, 1984). The former requires a change in action, while the latter requires emotional acceptance and adaptation.

In order to cope effectively, a person asks and answers a series of questions about their environment, control of the situation, and resources available to us:

  1. Why is this situation stressful? To what extent is it stressful?

  2. What demands are placed on me?

  3. Can I manage these demands? How do I emotionally respond to these demands? Is there anything I can do in response to these demands to change the environment I’m confronting?

We first assess whether a situation we confront is irrelevant, benign-positive, or stressful. Once we determine that they are stressful, we can put them into three primary Appraisal groups that will evaluate the degree of control you have and the resources that are available to you:

  • Harm/loss: What damage has already been done to my body or to that/those around me?

  • Threat: What potential damage, harm or loss am I anticipating?

  • Challenge: Is this a stressful situation I can actively master or benefit from?

Emotional Coping

If you assess that nothing can be done to change the harmful, threatening, or challenging environmental conditions, emotional coping is likely. Here you might engage in reframing, meditation, acceptance, on the positive side and wishful thinking, minimization, or avoidance on the negative.

Problem-focused Coping

On the other hand, if you think you can change the situation, problem-solving strategies would include learning new skills, finding alternative channels of gratification, or developing new standards of behavior.

There are overlaps in coping strategies that touch on both emotional- and problem-focused functions at the same time. These include seeking social support. Curiously, emotional and problem-focused strategies aren’t opposite poles on a single continuum of “coping” but rather are distinct constructs. An increase in one doesn’t imply a decrease in the other.

Therefore “coping” requires “the wisdom to know the difference” between that which you can change, and that which you can’t. Whether or not you perceive your ability to control accurately is essential in determining whether your coping mechanism is effective. If one can control the stressful occurrence, it is best to focus on the problem itself. On the other hand, if it is not, your efforts will be ineffective, or detrimental.

Believing in Control that You Don’t Have

Think for a moment about those lost in the wilderness. Assessment about whether or not “I can find my way out” will spur action or settling in. Believing one could become “unlost” has resulted in the death of many a lost wilderness traveler. This belief in their efficacy made them take unnecessary risks and made it more difficult for a rescue party to locate them.

When the situation is assessed as “out of your control,” one may be better served by reducing stress, through escapism, minimization, self-blaming, seeking meaning, learning relaxation and breathing techniques or “managing negative thoughts.”

When you can impact the stressor, through instrumental action, developing and following through with a plan, etc, is a more effective strategy in lowering your psychological symptoms. Researchers emphasized that “coping efficaciousness” or how well you felt you dealt with the stressor played an important role.

Also, in highly distressed subjects, cognitive distortions (“stinkin’ thinkin’” such as “I can never adjust to this trauma”) can impact accurate appraisals and therefore impact a person’s capacity to determine the right coping mechanism to use. Finally, lowering distress is not a universal goal for some. For example, some complex and difficult situations might lead to increased distress (for example, maintaining a relationship) in the short term.

Psychological symptoms of distress are more likely when there is a poor fit between one’s appraisals and one’s strategies for coping (trying to change what you can’t or not trying to change what you can).

Other Theories

Tobin, et al (1989) found that there was a hierarchical structure of coping with three levels:

At the primary level, eight coping strategies were found. These are: problem solving, cognitive restructuring, social support, expressing emotions, problem avoidance, wishful thinking, social withdrawal, and self-criticism.

The secondary level was of two types of problem-focused coping: problem engagement and problem disengagement. Two types of emotional-focused coping were also found: emotional engagement and emotional disengagement.

At the tertiary level two basic approaches to deal with stressful situations could be found: engagement and disengagement.

 

Engagement vs Disengagement

Problem-engaged vs Problem-disengaged

Emotionally-engaged vs Emotionally-disengaged

Problem solving vs Problem avoidance & rumination

Cognitive restructuring vs Denial, wishful thinking

Social support prior to stressor vs Nonsupport

Social expressing emotions interactions vs. Social withdrawal

Self-esteem vs Self-criticism

Coping self-efficacy vs Ineffectiveness

(one’s perceived ability to produce desired outcomes in stressful situations)

Meaning-focused coping/positive appraisal vs. Meaninglessness action

(changing the appraisal of the situation to be more consistent with one’s goals and beliefs.)

Psychological Health

After Medical and physical needs, psychological needs of survivors need to be assessed. Psychological reactions to disaster include behavioral changes and regression in children including fear and anxiety about recurrence, sleep disturbances and school avoidance leading to development of school phobias. Re-establishing routine is essential for both children and adults. Familiar patterns of mealtime (with familiar food), work of some sort, socialization time, and bedtime routine are important for adults as well as children.

Adults may feel depressed or anxious, show anger, mood swings, suspicion, irritability, and/or apathy. Increased rate of psychosomatic illnesses and a worsening of pre-existing physical problems such as heart trouble, diabetes, and ulcers may occur in response to the increased level of stress. Visual memories of the event can be disturbing and social withdrawal is also common.

Flight of Thought

Often trauma survivors experience flight of thought, which interferes with decision-making. They search in their mind for a solution to help a trauma situation, but find none. They frantically continue to search, and this frantic flight of thought leaves them feeling disorganized. While their flight of thought is temporary, it usually does not stop when they are in a place of safety. Their decision making during this time is often chaotic. They focus on one repetitious thought and are unable to attend to the matter at hand.


"We are all terrified. There is no road map and we have no idea where we go from here"

Exaggeration of Dysfunction

Trauma exaggerates dysfunctional reactions. A chaotic family or organization, with a history of anger, becomes rageful when experiencing a trauma. Their rage intensifies the chaos, and stops their ability to effectively manage the crisis.

For many, disasters mean the loss of everything: their homes or financial well-being, and daily routines. Bereavement is ongoing for missing loved ones and friends. Neighborhoods disappear, along with familiar rituals such as evening walks or familiar shopping rituals. Everything that ties people to their past, photo albums, wall hangings, religious items, computer games, and sentimental objects of all types are gone. An awareness of how time is marked changes into ‘before’ or ‘after’ the disaster. For some, symptoms emerge immediately while for others, only as they start to rebuild their lives do stressful symptoms occur.

“The whole scene looked as if it had been painted in shades of gray. The children neither laughed nor played. The adults acted as if they were surrounded by a sheath of heavy air through which they could move and respond only at the cost of a deliberate effort. . . I felt.. . as though I were in the company of people so wounded in spirit that they almost constituted a different culture, as though the language we shared in common was simply not sufficient to overcome the enormous gap in experience that separated us” Sociologist Kai Erikson observations from survivors of the Buffalo Creek dam disaster, 1972.

 

It is striking that there are no children crying and how orderly everything appears to be. Overall, there is an air of subdued calm and of people grimly adjusting to the new reality that their peaceful fishing town will never be the same again. When I ask how people are coping, the school’s headmaster , Mitsuhiko Shobuke, said: “Japanese people are enduring. It is not in our culture to express our sorrow or anger. We grin and bear it. There has been no looting and no riots here because in our culture we value order and dignity and we help each other. I am proud of how our people have behaved.” Japan, 2011

 

Psychological Responses to Disaster and Traumatic Events

“Most people are exposed to at least one violent or life-threatening situation during the course of their lives. Resilience is common and multiple pathways can lead to it” (Bonanno 2004).

Although many people exposed to large-scale disasters and traumatic events experience significant psychological distress, this is not an indication of pathology (Gray, 2004). Most people exposed to a disaster do well and experience only mild, transient symptoms (Ursano, et al., 1995). Their responses are normal responses to “inordinate adversity” (Gray, et al., 2004). Flynn and Norwood (2004) report that common physical responses include fatigue, nausea, fine motor tremors, tics, paresthesias (a sensation of tingling, pricking, or numbness of a person’s skin), profuse diaphoreses (sweatsing excessively and unpredictably), dizziness, gastrointestinal upset, heart palpitations, and choking or smothering sensations, and cognitive responses include memory loss, anomia, (problem with word finding. Impaired recall of words with no impairment of comprehension) decision-making difficulties, confusing trivial with major issues, concentration problems or distractibility, reduced attention span and calculation difficulties. Emotional responses include anxiety, grief, irritability, feeling overwhelmed and anticipating harm to self or others, while behavior responses include insomnia, gait change, hypervigilence, crying easily, gallows humor, and ritualistic behavior (Flynn and Norwood, 2004).

Thinking the Unthinkable

No one wants to consider the possibility of bad things happening to good people. But they do. Most of us in the Peak Oil community recognize how vulnerable we are to catastrophe, and our hearts go out to those suffering in Japan. This blend of natural and man-made disaster is a toxic mix to deal with, multiplying the challenges to basic survival. There but for fortune go you or I.

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