A note from Jane: An overwhelming number of people have been directly impacted by the recent natural disasters that are occurring across the world. My longtime friend, Danielle Mercuri, is a LCSW/psychotherapist in Florida who experienced the effects of Irma firsthand. She has graciously offered her wisdom about the reality of the toll that this type of trauma takes on the nervous system, and how to begin the process of healing.
Hello Friends! Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Danielle Mercuri, LCSW, owner of The Journey of Healing, LLC. I am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in both Florida and Colorado with expertise in Trauma. I am a Certified Traumatologist, Hypnotherapist, and EMDR practitioner.
Trauma is defined as overwhelming demands placed upon the physiological system that result in a profound felt sense of loss of control (International Center for Disaster Resilience.) Some basic reactions that begin as a normal reaction to a traumatic event may end up supporting maladaptive coping strategies and lead to anxiety disorders, depression, and PTSD. Many will feel as though they are experiencing the event currently even though the actual trauma has passed. Hyperarousal and a heightened startle response may occur frequently after the initial incident. Often times a person going through a traumatic incident will attempt to avoid places and people that remind them of the event and may even become numb and/or depressed. A person may not be able to make internal meaning or sense of their lives any longer and feel as though they are not in control.
In light of the recent hurricanes; Harvey, Irma, and Maria and the raging fires in the West and Mid-West; traumatic responses were prevalent. The top 5 major traumas are natural disasters, war, rape, domestic violence, and feeling pain despite being under anesthesia, but not being able to move or tell anyone. It became abundantly clear the devastation that natural disasters cause as I watched Floridians in preparation for Hurricane Irma (after being exposed to the aftermath on television of Hurricane Harvey,) start to panic and feel intense fear. We were all told to get extra water, batteries, board up our windows and gas up our cars. This logically sounds like simple tasks for most of us; however, the intense fear of death of self or a loved one, destruction of our homes, and permanent misplacement paralyzed many. The gas station lines were hours long, only to find that when it was a person’s turn, there was no gas left. The lines to buy water were literally wrapped around city blocks; the grocery stores were bare. This is still before the storm with not a drop of water yet. Some people shared their supplies, but most went into survival mode and unfortunately stole from others, fist fought over the last bottle of water in a store and syphoned gas out of people’s cars. Many made the difficult choice of whether to stay or leave. Many left, only to find that the gridlock was so bad, that they ran out of gas on the highway with their children and pets in the car; stranded on the road with a hurricane headed at them.
Everyone’s feelings of trauma are valid in this situation. There is fight, flight, and freeze as a response to trauma and we do not get to choose which one our brains cling to. It is our reptilian brain that chooses for us. What I do know is that the people that fared the best psychologically, were those who prepared far ahead of time. This is not only for the obvious reasons of having food, water, and basic necessities, but because it gave people a sense of mastery and control over their own circumstance. Although one cannot stop the storm, one fares better psychologically when one has a sense of accomplishing what is within one’s power to control. Another important factor in mental preservation is using mindfulness and relaxation imagery techniques. Many were making sure they exercised to release feel-good endorphins, practiced yoga, meditated, and became aware of their breathing. This helped people to be able to function and feel stable in an unstable situation. There are many techniques to implement in the face of traumatic events.
After the storm: Many people’s power was out for days, 90 degrees in their homes, with no food or water. These were the lucky ones. St. Martin, St. Croix, and the Florida Keys, and many other areas for Irma did not fare well at all. I have been helping people begin the healing process of losing loved ones, having no home to go back to and no resources. There is hope against all hope. Clients are already making marked progress in moving through the feelings of devastation. I recommend that people do not excessively watch the news after a storm; as it can trigger fear symptoms and people can re-experience their own losses as if it were happening all over again. (For this reason, we have purposely chosen not to use photos as a part of this blog posting.)
Then, news that Hurricane Maria was headed straight for Puerto Rico at a category 5. Many fellow therapists kept busy helping Irma survivors, even though their loved ones were hit days ago by Maria still with no word if their family was alive or dead. These therapists fared better due to keeping themselves busy doing work that they loved and helping other people; as that is all they had control over.
If you are experiencing any trauma, please do not go it alone. There is help and resources to function at your optimal level. Please seek out a trauma specialist to help you navigate your healing. There is hope and it always prevails.
Danielle Mercuri, LCSW, is the owner of The Journey of Healing LLC in Tampa, Florida.