Mind Matters — Personal Responses To Disasters

Remember the TV show Mash? That philosophical rendering of the horrors of the Korean War? I remember one show where Alan Alda noted how the human body was so fragile, yet the human spirit so resilient.

I am reminded of these words once again in viewing pictures and hearing accounts of the multiple disaster in Japan, from earthquake to tsunami to nuclear power crisis. Meanwhile there is still devastation in Haiti from the earthquake last year; New Zealand has been bombarded by two earthquakes months apart. These natural disasters are all occurring in the midst of uprisings and war in the Middle East.

Our way of handling the overwhelm may be to check into what Charlie Sheen is doing next, but that in itself is its own exploitation of a man in need of addiction and psychotherapeutic treatment. It's probably fortunate, at least, that Japan is so many thousands of miles away and is a “developed” country, else we’d be throwing tons of old shoes, sheets and clothing their way. This is a phenomenon that rankles me, that when a disaster happens, our first impulse is to clean out our closets. However, money is always handy, and yes, we do usually give generously.

There is one redeeming point to natural versus man-made disasters: psychologically, we seem to fare better when the devastation is the result of natural rather than human causes. The trauma of war or terrorist’s violence (homegrown or otherwise) is an insult to the psyche. How humans can be violent and brutal to other humans is a violation to our connectedness. Calamities of floods, fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, most definitely can traumatize us. Yet even worse is human inhumanity.

In Hurricane Katrina and in Haiti's earthquake, natural disasters were compounded by confounding of the human response. In New Orleans, there appeared to be a lack of care by some levels of government(certainly the Coast Guard was prompt). In Haiti, the lack of infrastructure and massive poverty to begin with, complicated the devastation there.

When we witness natural disasters such as in Japan we may run the gamut of responses. On one end of the spectrum we may be vicariously traumatized, identifying with the suffering we see on TV, read in the newspaper, or hear about on the radio. We may have flashbacks to past traumas in our lives or we may have some special connection to the people. (Perhaps we studied there or have friends or relatives there.) Or perhaps our deep empathy aligns us with the suffering and we go numb, become overwhelmed. At the other end of the spectrum, we may dismiss any interest in the events and consider it all far away and having no affect on us, so no need to care—"not my problem".

Between these polarities lies a continuum of reactions. And somewhere in the array is the “via media.” How do we not turn a blind eye and go into denial of suffering while at the same time not become vicariously traumatized? As a therapist and emergency volunteer, I have experienced vicarious traumatization, and there are answers.

Karen Saakvitne and Laurie Pearlman wrote many years ago a book called Transforming the Pain: A Workbook on Vicarious Traumatization. It was meant for professionals working with traumatized clients but its message can be extended to anyone who has witnessed trauma (even indirectly through the media).

Their message can be distilled to the "ABC's:" Awareness, Balance, and Connection.

Whenever we fly, the attendant always reminds us, if the oxygen mask is needed, place it on yourself first before attempting to place it on anyone else. The message is clear: if you are not conscious and breathing yourself, you won't be able to help another. So remember to breathe and then see how you can help.

Donations for relief aid. There are many ways to donate. The March 16, 2011, Philadelphia Inquirer published a summary compiled by the Associated Press: