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Commentary: Long-term disasters

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We will forever remember Oklahoma’s spring 2013 tornadoes with photographs of family homes reduced to bare slabs of concrete and in photos of emergency workers searching for survivors in the rubble of neighborhoods and schools.

We also must remember that many survivors are still struggling with anger, depression, stress, anxiety and grief as they cope with the trauma they experienced in the storms.

Everyone experiences anxiety at one time or another, but people who have lived through natural disasters may re-experience some of that trauma when storm clouds gather anew each year.

Recently, I was asked by a first responder, “What are the signs of weather-related anxiety?”

Weather-related anxiety is a stress response in anticipation of future dangerous storms. People struggling with this malady find themselves hypervigilant about weather, constantly checking the skies. Also, they may experience difficulty sleeping, bad dreams and restlessness and agitation during the day.

During the past 20 years of natural disaster research, depression among adults and children was found to be a common mental health problem. But many survivors with low or no income simply don’t know where to turn for counseling.

And, to make matters worse, navigating the complex mental health system can be difficult or virtually impossible. As community members, we all must advocate and facilitate well-being and continued healing. The best solution is to educate yourself about key resources so you can help others before and after a crisis hits.

There are many strategies that help with storm-related anxiety, including: • Strive to maintain a usual routine; • Physical activity, including exercise and chores, helps focus energy; • Limit intake of alcohol and caffeine; • Take time-outs periodically for relaxation, meditation and stress relief; • When severe weather threatens, monitor changes through local media outlets.

Perhaps the best way to deal with weather-related anxiety is to plan for it.

In Oklahoma, most people who are prepared for natural disasters became prepared after they survived one.

These resources and guidelines are important and help families and other community members. Know beforehand who to contact for mental health counseling after the storm passes.

First, build an emergency kit. Evaluate personal needs before putting together a survival kit of food, water, battery-powered or hand-crank radio, flashlight, first-aid kit and whistle. Outline plans for pets, prescription needs and emergency documents.

Second, create a communication plan. Cell phones might save lives, but household members also need to know and practice what everyone will do and where they will go in an emergency.

Third, offer assistance. Helping others often softens our own anxiety.

Finally, ask for help. Call Heartland 211 or Mental Health Association Oklahoma’s free referral line at 943-3700. Learn more at mhaok.org/disastercounseling.

Karin Price of Mental Health Association of Oklahoma is a licensed master social worker.

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