Coping with Trauma: Mental Health Recovery Tips

The impact of adversity or a natural disaster reaches beyond the visible toll of lost homes and crippled infrastructure. Devastating events like Hurricane Sandy also affect the mental health of those in its wake, and extraordinary tragedies can have a lasting influence."Developing the psychological toolbox to get through tough times is one of the primary challenges of recovering from a traumatic event," remarks Dennis S. Charney, MD, Dean of the Ichan School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and author of Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life's Greatest Challenges, who has spent 15 years researching and publishing prolifically about the power of human resilience. "Fostering targeted, positive traits such as optimism and altruism are critical for prevailing over adversity."

At Mount Sinai Health System, our internationally recognized experts are at the forefront of research and clinical care for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), mood and anxiety disorders, and related mental health conditions. "Among our patients, we've found significant variability in the way people respond to devastating events —from those who feel fortunate to have gotten through safely with only material damages to those who feel they've lost everything," adds Rachel Yehuda, PhD, Director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. "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 a hurricane or tragedy, 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 (i.e. difficulty in seeing the positive) can make recovering from a traumatic event all the more difficult.

The good news is there are healthy ways to cope with such feelings and move forward after natural disasters or tragic events. For some, bouncing back 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 with stress survival. Although it is in part genetic, optimism 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: If you're stuck ruminating over the window you should have boarded up or the sandbags you didn't set out, you're not doing yourself any favors. "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.
  • 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 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 channels such as CNN or FOX nonstop and rehashing a 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 that it may be too early to think about long-term effects, like developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. "Everybody talks about PTSD one minute after an event happens, and I don't think that's helpful," she says. "There is plenty of time to worry about PTSD later."
  • Count your blessings: For those people who have not suffered extraordinary losses and are simply feeling frustrated with problems such as power outages, Dr. Charney suggests: "Observe those who are not as fortunate as you; seize the opportunity to understand that if you're primary obstacle is a downed tree or transit interruption, you can accept it." He advises making an effort to improve the situation by taking measures like 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. 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. However, recognizing these signs and fostering your inner strength are your greatest tools for preventing long-lasting effects of traumatic experiences.