Coping with the Aftermath of a Natural Disaster
The recent earthquake in southern Turkey has caused devastation to so many families throughout the country. Even those who have not been directly affected may find it difficult to function normally as the news of the extent of the destruction unfolds. Feelings of anxiety, sadness, and/or anger, grief, difficulty concentrating and/or sleeping, and rumination over the event, are normal responses to a traumatic event. These emotions can lead to productive action, including mobilizing to provide direct or indirect support to victims and families. For the majority of people, these psychological responses lessen with time as people and the whole of society adjust to the changes; while, for others, these symptoms persist, and lead to chronic mental health disorders. In this article, I will provide strategies to assist you in healing from this experience and mediate against chronic and serious mental illness.
Following a traumatic event, there is a risk that the normal psychological responses can develop into PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) or another chronic mental health condition. However, for the vast majority, these symptoms lessen over time and an individual is able to gradually resume life without significant impairment. One’s relationship to the event (whether she/he experienced it first-hand, suffered a significant loss, witnessed the aftermath of the event, or is experiencing the event vicariously through the news and social media), and whether one has experienced trauma, including abuse and/or neglect, can significantly impact how she/he responds to an event trauma, as can being able to easily access healthy internal coping strategies, the hallmark of resilience. Since most individuals are not capable of assessing their risk for developing a chronic mental health condition, it is important for everyone to engage in practices that support optimal mental and physical health in the aftermath of a traumatic event.
Because a natural disaster can raise feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, fear, loss of control, and possibly inadequacy, self-blame, and guilt (among others), it is helpful to begin noticing what thoughts and feelings are coming up and where you feel them in your body. Engaging in just 2-5 minutes of mindful reflection daily can help you become more connected with your internal experience. Journaling, whether written or in audio or video format, can provide a platform to process those emotions. If, at any time, you notice thoughts of harming yourself or others, it is important to remove access to the means and seek the help of a mental health professional immediately.
Socializing with supportive family or friends can help with making sense of the experience and meet our human need for connection. Keeping a calendar of times when you have felt abnormally dysregulated as well as the specific triggering event can help you assess whether there is a change in the intensity or frequency of unusual behaviors over time. In the immediate aftermath of the event, it can help to lessen exposure to your triggers until you have had time to make sense of the experience. Because our environment can significantly impact the healing process, it is helpful to maintain daily routines, engage in activities of pleasure, mastery, and altruism, eat a healthy diet, avoid alcohol and other drugs, and exercise regularly. For parents with young children, it is important to prioritize your mental and physical health, focus on creating a sense of safety and stability in the home through routines and increased times for emotional connection, helping them name and express their feelings about the event. For parents of school-aged children, it can also be helpful to support your child in constructing a coherent story of their experience by engaging in on-going discussions that include their thoughts and feelings about the event as well as perspectives of others who experienced it differently (please see the pdf in the resource section for more detailed information).
Lastly, for those seeking mental health support, there are a number of local professionals providing therapy in both Turkish, English, and possibly other languages. However, if you are finding it difficult to locate a psychotherapist locally, there are a number of resources that provide online psychotherapy for expats in various languages, including The International Therapist Directory (www.international therapist directory.com); Therapy Route (www.therapyroute.com); and, The Truman Group (www.trumangroup.com). Accessible to women, the Foreign Women of Istanbul 2.0 Facebook Group provides a listing of expat psychotherapists operating locally. Additionally, a new directory, psikologbul.io specifically aims at providing pro bono assistance to victims of the earthquakes and their families.
A Special Note for Those Seeking to Help
For those seeking mental health support, there are a number of local professionals as well as foreign-born "free lance" mental health professionals living in Turkey offering assistance to the non-Turkish speaking community. As you may imagine, the need for mental health professionals to assist victims therapeutically far outweighs the capacity. Psychotherapists and counselors willing to offer support may donate therapy sessions via psikologbul.io, an online therapist directory aiming to support victims and families, developed by Hatice Seyma at Bogazici University. For those seeking to support the relief efforts currently underway, monetary donations can be made to a number of organizations, including the Turkish-based AKUT, a volunteer search and rescue non-governmental agency.