Mount Sinai Experts Can Discuss the Emotional and Psychological Effects of Hurricane Sandy

At Mount Sinai, experts in mood and anxiety disorders and PTSD can discuss the emotional and psychological effects of natural disasters, and outline strategies for recovery.

 – November 5, 2012 /Press Release/  –– 

The impact of a natural disaster such as Hurricane Sandy goes beyond the visible toll of displaced people, lost homes, and crippled infrastructure. These devastating events can also affect the mental health of the people who lived through the crisis or whose family and friends suffered losses because of the storm.

At The Mount Sinai Medical Center, internationally renowned experts in mood and anxiety disorders and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can discuss the emotional and psychological effects of natural disasters, and outline strategies for recovery.

Dennis S. Charney, MD, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Dean, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, recently published Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, a book aimed at helping lay audiences understand the brain science that underlies resilience and the coping techniques that help people overcome adversity. A psychiatrist by training, Dr. Charney, who is also Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs, The Mount Sinai Medical Center, has spent his career researching and publishing scientific articles and books on the power of human resilience.

“Fostering targeted, positive traits such as optimism and altruism are critical for prevailing over adversity,” he explains. “It is also important to identify and emulate role models in resilience, whether they are people that you know personally or admire from afar.”

Rachel Yehuda, PhD, Director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, says, “Among our patients, we’ve found significant variability in the way people respond to events like Hurricane Sandy—from those who feel fortunate to have gotten through safely with only material damages to those who feel they’ve lost everything,” she explains. “But I always tell patients, ‘The sooner you can accept what’s happened and focus on what to do next, the quicker you will achieve recovery.’”

Stress Symptoms and Tips

For those who have been significantly impacted by the hurricane, Drs. Charney and Yehuda say reactions that include numbness, ruminations, irritability, feeling down, difficulty sleeping, and nightmares are common in the days following an event. Anyone already diagnosed with a mental illness, such as depression or bipolar disorder, are especially vulnerable because their natural inclinations, such as difficulty in seeing the positive, can make recovering from a traumatic event all the more challenging.

The good news is there are healthy ways to cope with such feelings and move forward from events such as Hurricane Sandy. For some, bouncing back—and even becoming stronger—can be realized almost immediately. However, for others, the stress could last for years. Here, Drs. Charney and Yehuda share tips on how best to embrace activity, focus on the positive, and expedite your return to a sense of normalcy.

  • Focus on the positive: Even though matters may be difficult right now, Dr. Charney explains in Resilience that optimism is strongly correlated to overcoming stress. Although there are genetic underpinnings to optimism, it is a trait that can be learned. He suggests finding opportunities to seek joy in moments we may otherwise take for granted and realizing that this experience could even help you grow stronger.

  • Leave the past in the past: Do not ruminate over the window you should have boarded up or the sandbags you should have set out. “Part of recovering from this is accepting that there wasn’t any way to conquer Mother Nature and there was no way to anticipate the magnitude of the storm,” Dr. Yehuda says. “You need to be kind to yourself and forgive yourself after something like this happens.” She adds that most people’s negative feelings after a disaster subside when they develop a specific plan. “So the healthy response is to focus on making temporary living arrangements, applying for aid, or doing whatever needs to be done to move forward,” she explains.

  • Channel your personal moral compass: “Your core beliefs should be shatterproof,” Dr. Charney observes. “For many, faith in conjunction with strong religious and/or spiritual beliefs is associated with resilience. Turning to these principles at times of crisis can be extremely powerful.”

  • Get active: No matter how affected you are, taking an active role in what’s going on will help boost your mood and energy. “My foremost recommendation at this juncture is that the more proactive you can be—even if it’s helping somebody else—the better you’ll feel,” Dr. Charney explains. “Hospitals are evacuating, people are in shelters, so opportunities abound for you to get involved.”

  • Harness your physical wellbeing: Exercise has positive effects on your physical mood and self-esteem, including positive reinforcement of cognition, regulation of emotion, and immune function. Dr. Charney emphasizes this principle in Resilience, and suggests you maintain or even enhance your current fitness routine.

  • Turn off the television: “Watching news nonstop and rehashing the storm’s negative impact won’t necessarily build your strength,” Dr. Yehuda points out. In general, television is useful for informational purposes, but sensationalism can have an adverse effect, so focus on activity instead.

  • Keep an eye on future warning signs: The emotional reactions immediately following a traumatic event—such as irritability, feeling down, and sleep disruptions—are natural and not necessarily cause for alarm. “We don’t worry so much when people have these symptoms right away,” says Dr. Yehuda. “We just want to make sure they don’t turn into long-term reactions; we tend to worry only later if people don’t seem to be getting better.” But, Dr. Yehuda points out, it may be too early to think about long-term effects, such as developing PTSD. “Everybody talks about PTSD one minute after an event happens, and I don’t think that’s helpful,” she says. “There will be plenty of time to worry about PTSD later. Right now we’re in survival mode.”

  • Count your blessings: For people who have not suffered extraordinary losses and are just feeling frustrated with problems such as power outages, Dr. Charney recommends recognizing that things could have been worse. He advises making an effort to improve the situation by taking measures such as talking to your employer and discovering how you or your company can get more involved in helping out.

  • Embrace your social network: “When it comes to an event like this, very few of us can cope alone. Humans need a safety net during times of stress, so avoid any urge to isolate,” Dr. Charney recommends. “Instead, connect with those around you. Approximately 90 percent of us will experience at least one serious traumatic event during our lives. Realizing other people are in the same or similar situation, and knowing that there are reasons to be grateful, can enhance people’s resilience considerably.”

Symptoms of stress are common in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster. Recognizing these signs and fostering your inner strength are your greatest tools for preventing long-lasting effects of traumatic experiences. However, if you experience prolonged mood swings, disproportionate anger, anxiety, destructive or impulsive behavior, or depression that become chronic, our experts suggest seeking professional help.


Contact Us

Outpatient Psychiatry Clinic
Tel: 212-241-7181

Mood and Anxiety Disorders Program
Tel: 212-241-7906

Mount Sinai Hotline
Tel: 212-241-6500

In their book Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life's Greatest Challenges, co-authors Dennis S. Charney, MD and Steven M. Southwick, MD identify 10 "resilience factors" that help people cope with the impact of traumatic life-changing events.
View excerpt. [PDF]

Read The Science of Resilience: Implications for the Prevention and Treatment of Depression by Steven M. Southwick and Dennis S. Charney in the October 5th issue of Science.

Listen to October 5 Science podcast in which Dr. Charney discusses resilience training.

Dr. Charney is part of a panel of leading thinkers from around the world that explore questions relating to the science of resilience; “How We Bounce Back: The New Science of Human Resistance:” at the World Science Festival in New York City in June 2012. Dr. Charney explains the neural circuits and chemistry involved in human anxiety, fear, and depression and how specific neurochemicals contribute to resilience at the molecular level.

About The Mount Sinai Medical Center

The Mount Sinai Medical Center encompasses both The Mount Sinai Hospital and Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Established in 1968, Mount Sinai School of Medicine is one of the leading medical schools in the United States. The Medical School is noted for innovation in education, biomedical research, clinical care delivery, and local and global community service. It has more than 3,400 faculty in 32 departments and 14 research institutes, and ranks among the top 20 medical schools both in National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding and by U.S. News & World Report.

The Mount Sinai Hospital, founded in 1852, is a 1,171-bed tertiary- and quaternary-care teaching facility and one of the nation's oldest, largest and most-respected voluntary hospitals. In 2012, U.S. News & World Report ranked The Mount Sinai Hospital 14th on its elite Honor Roll of the nation's top hospitals based on reputation, safety, and other patient-care factors. Mount Sinai is one of 12 integrated academic medical centers whose medical school ranks among the top 20 in NIH funding and U.S. News & World Report and whose hospital is on the U.S. News & World Report Honor Roll.  Nearly 60,000 people were treated at Mount Sinai as inpatients last year, and approximately 560,000 outpatient visits took place.

For more information, visit http://www.mountsinai.org/.  

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