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Coping with stress in the aftermath of Katrina

Observer Viewpoint | Tuesday, September 20, 2005

No one who experiences a disaster can remain untouched by it. The effects of Hurricane Katrina are both hard to believe and to accept. The impact of this Hurricane is particularly complicated when we think about the loss of lives, human suffering and physical devastation involved. It makes us all direct or indirect victims and survivors. Here in our own Notre Dame community we have many survivors who are dealing with the psychological footprint of this disaster in one way or another. The University Counseling Center offers its support to our ND students and also welcomes students who have recently joined the ND community from schools in affected areas.

At a time such as this, many of us may be dealing with the direct impact of this tragedy on our families and friends and with the physical devastation of some of our homes or places familiar and dear to us. Some of us may need to begin the journey of coming to terms with the tragedy and to learn different ways to cope with our shock, grief and loss. Still others among us may not know where to start. It is important to realize that there is no correct way to feel or a right way to respond. The psychological impact can be complex and our own responses complicated.

The mantra of disaster psychology is that the event is abnormal and not individuals’ responses. It is important to understand that initial stress responses are natural. The initial stress responses some of us may have experienced or are still experiencing are numerous; for example, physical responses such as feeling fatigue, startle reflex, headaches, sweating and gastro-intestinal problems are common. Emotional responses such as fear, anger, guilt, anxiety, reduced awareness, numbing, detachment, helplessness and hopelessness are also to be expected. Other stress markers can include decreased concentration, confusion, inability to remember important aspects of the trauma, problems with sleep and diet, social withdrawal, increased substance use and a general feeling of being overwhelmed. Self-care is recommended to be the first and foremost step to healthy coping. Some positive ways to cope include restful sleep, healthful eating, exercise, relaxation and practicing your spiritual or religious beliefs. Additionally, it may be important to maintain open communication with others and to seek out/form a support network.

Although a majority of individuals who are exposed to disasters return to pre-disaster functioning, Hurricane Katrina presents many of us with perceptibl, as well as unforeseen challenges. Many of our students may need to cope with psychological issues of grief and loss, and emotional and financial issues associated with the devastation of some of our homes. The UCC extends its support and assistance for students who may need to address and cope with some of their unique psychological and cultural issues.

If you are interested in joining a support group for students who have been affected by Hurricane Katrina, please call the University Counseling Center at 631-7336. If you would like more information about us, you can also visit us at our Web site (http://www.nd.edu/~ucc/). We look forward to working with our students.

Meera Murthi, M.SUniversity Counseling CenterSept. 19