Experts: Some Will Experience Emotional Trauma After Tornado

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Health

The trauma of the tornado, and the daunting cleanup job, can leave people feeling anxious. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

The lights are back on and much of the debris has been cleared, but for some people, troubling memories of last week’s storm will linger for awhile. And experts say that’s not unusual.

“It’s perfectly normal that, after an event such as a tornado, folks would have strong emotional and physical reactions,” said Dayle Lawrence, clinical director of Cape Cod Human Services, which is Cape Cod Health Care’s outpatient behavioral health center. Those reactions could include feelings of fear or anxiety, headaches, insomnia or nausea. “All of those things are within the realm of normal. The problem is if it sticks around too long,” she said.

Margaret Tompsett of Chatham, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, has experience working with people traumatized by disasters through the American Red Cross.

“It’s the people who are alone, particularly elderly people, because there’s always this fear, who would rescue me if something should happen?” she said. But children can also be traumatized by disasters, particularly when their parents are having trouble coping with the emergency.

“If their parents are coping, by and large they’ll fall into line and be able to cope,” Tompsett said.

For most people, the feelings of anxiety and uncertainty will pass on their own, but they’re not unusual, she said.

“When that storm came through, it was so intense and so violent, and so outside the experience of most of us,” she said. The suddenness of the storm was also jarring, Tompsett noted. For one reason or another, Tompsett said she didn’t receive an emergency notification before the storm hit.

Cape Cod Chronicle contributor Russ Allen said the storm passed a half-mile from his home, and he found the event traumatizing.

“I was alone without means of communication in a small basement laundry room with the wind roaring outside when multiple tree limbs landed on the house directly above me,” he said. When people ask if he’s all right, he tells them he’s not. “Physically, yes I am, but emotionally I am not. My experience last Tuesday frightened me and I am nowhere near recovered from it,” he said.

“It helps to know that it’s normal to feel anxious about it,” Tompsett said. “Especially if you’ve experienced a trauma before, it can reawaken the earlier trauma.”

Lawrence said there are ways people can try to restore their own emotional well-being after the storm.

“Be gentle with yourself,” and offer enough time to recover, she said. “Sometimes it can help to talk with others,” she added. When people are fearful, they can experience recurrent negative thoughts. “You’ve got to change your thoughts,” Lawrence said. “Your thoughts drive your emotions, which drive your behavior.” When an unpleasant image enters one’s head, picture a stop sign or a red circle with a line through it, she said. Then think of a happy event or a vacation spot, “and when you hold that image in your mind, taking deep breaths, that will help reduce the stress,” she said.

It’s also good to reduce exposure to the images and the news coverage of the storm, if those images trigger bad feelings, she said.

If the negative thoughts, the anxiety and other symptoms persist, or if they are accompanied by sleep loss, persistent bad dreams or flashbacks, it might be time to consider getting professional help, Tompsett said.

“But the majority of people are resilient and manage these things pretty well,” she added.