Diocesan employees get guidance on how to deal with hurricane trauma

By Peter Finney Jr.
Catholic News Service

BATON ROUGE, La. (CNS) -- Rebuilding relationships with others and not remaining isolated in grief or lapsing into destructive behaviors are critical to overcoming the emotional and psychological effects of Hurricane Katrina on those who have lost loved ones, jobs and a lifetime of possessions, according to two Maryland psychologists.

Sister Lynn M. Levo, a Sister of St. Joseph, and Sheila Harron spoke at a trauma workshop in Baton Rouge Sept. 29 for employees of the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the Diocese of Baton Rouge. The psychologists are with the St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., which specializes in counseling for clergy and religious.

The employees' session followed one held a day earlier for priests dealing with parishioners who have lost homes and possessions.

Caregivers have to be aware to take care of themselves during this time of stress and loss, the psychologists said.

"You need to connect with others, and do not isolate or withdraw," Sister Levo said. "This is one of the most damaging things people do."

Sister Levo said Hurricane Katrina differs from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, because it was an act of nature, but said there are similarities because human error did occur in both tragedies and led to more suffering.

"When there is a warning, people are better able to handle it, but a lot of people weren't worried because no one expected the levees to break," Sister Levo said. "There was tremendous loss. There was separation and life was threatened. People were seeing things they never should have seen.

"There was also a lot of anger and blame. Where were the buses? People's spiritual bases can be shaken. The earth is not solid anymore. You lose that sense of invulnerability," she said. "And a disaster of this kind tends to have a greater impact on people with fewer resources."

Sister Levo said people could expect emotional and psychological fallout from the hurricane to last as long as five years. A person moves from disbelief to shock, denial, anger, sadness, despair, "hypervigilance," anxiety, isolation and loneliness before he or she can come to terms with new realities and then reconstruct a new life.

"People need to grieve, but people tend to get mad rather than sad," Sister Levo said.

Harron said most people are still living in the acute phase of the crisis, "which means it's not going to last forever."

"But the feelings in this phase are fear, anger, anxiety, waking up in the middle of the night, confusion, withdrawal, being irritated," Harron said. "Your thinking is just a little fuzzier. This can last anywhere from days to months. This calls for some kind of established order."

Most people get past the acute phase, Harron said, but some "get stuck" and can move into depression.

"Secondary" trauma is possible for those who are caring for victims. Quite often those receiving help transfer their anger over their situation to those who are trying to help.

"You're doing your best and you still can't make a difference," Sister Levo said. "You find yourself crying and saying, 'I can't hear one more story.' One of the priests told me yesterday, 'There is no gratitude.' I told him, 'Don't expect it. Do everything you do out of generosity of heart.'"

The way to heal from trauma is to grieve, Sister Levo said. "Grief work is essential," she said. "Anger simply pushes people away. No survivor can recover alone and no caregiver can work with trauma victims alone."

One of the keys to coping is getting back to balance and routine in daily living, Sister Levo said. "If you're not healthy and living a balanced life, you're going to be useless," she said.

Strategies for regaining balance are regular exercise, sleep, periodic naps and eating a balanced diet.

"Sleep deprivation is one of the most damaging things that can happen," Sister Levo said. "Adult-onset diabetes has been linked to people's inability to sleep. You need the same amount of sleep every night. It's mythology to think you can make it up the next night.

"You also need to watch that you don't overeat or eat late at night," she said. "Watch the caffeine and sugar and alcohol. Alcohol just increases anxiety. Alcohol is also a depressant. The Internet can be soothing, but men, especially, have to be careful. Don't leave prayer out. That will help you be a good survivor."

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Copyright (c) 2005 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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