Essay by Ezemenari M. Obasi
Posted Sept. 6, 2017 – As floodwaters from Harvey inched closer to my Pearland house a week ago Monday evening, I lined my doors with homemade sandbags and tried to stay positive. I walked my street in torrential rain to monitor storm drains and rapidly rising waters. The personal had collided with the professional. As a professor and associate dean at the University of Houston, my research focuses on stress physiology. I know what stress can do to the body – how it can fuel substance abuse and chronic diseases, affect relationships and impact concentration in school – even during non-disaster times.
Chronic stress and traumatic events are linked to numerous health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease, asthma, depression and addictions. People who were having trouble making ends meet before Harvey are particularly at risk.
I took comfort in seeing neighbors and strangers band together to help those most in need over the last few days. I’m confident we can heal from Harvey and grow stronger as a community, city, state and nation. But we must take care of our mental health as part of the recovery process. It’s important to watch for signs of traumatic stress among our family and friends – adults or children, especially if their support systems are lacking.
Personally, I’ve been trapped in my subdivision due to flooded and unpassable streets. As I’ve watched the 24-hour news cycle and monitored all the resources my middle-class neighborhood has to help each other (e.g., boats, kayaks, jeeps and first-responders), I couldn’t help but wonder how Houston’s Third Ward, Fifth Ward, East End, Sunnyside and other less privileged communities were holding up. This began to take a toll. “What are you going to do to help?” I asked myself.
Not being able to leave my house began to be too much. I had to turn off the news. I had to play more with my son to take my mind off things. When my stress came down, I began to use my expertise and wrote down ways we can cope better with stress and trauma as a community. I began to listen to and help friends and coworkers navigate mandatory evacuations. I’m currently preparing trauma and stress reduction workshops for residents in Third Ward near UH. I hope these warning signs of trauma and coping strategies can be used to help someone else get through this catastrophic act of nature.
Signs of trauma and increased stress:
- Loss of appetite or increased appetite
- Difficulty sleeping and/or nightmares
- Increased heart rate and/or chest pains
- Shortness of breath
- Increased feelings of fatigue
- Increased sadness and/or crying
- Difficulty concentrating
- Mood swings
- Feelings of guilt, hopelessness or helplessness
- Loss of interest in typically enjoyable activities
- Feeling irritable, jumpy or on edge
- Increased sweating
Tips to reduce stress and the impact of trauma:
- Limit exposure to constant media coverage to avoid reliving the trauma.
- Talk about the event. Normalize the experience. Share your thoughts with family or friends or in a journal.
- Exercise or enjoy hobbies.
- Volunteer to help others in need. Participate in community clean-ups.
- Engage with family, friends, religious leaders or neighbors. Having a reliable social network is critical.
- Find creative ways to use art to express your feelings about the experience.
- Be available for others who need comfort.
- Try to commit to a daily routine to build back a sense of normalcy.
- Seek professional mental health assistance from a psychologist. Work with social workers and counselors to identify resources to help manage the trauma.
- Engage in self-exploration to help see your strength and ways you have grown from the traumatic event.
- Try to eat healthy meals and get plenty of sleep. Minimize or eliminate caffeine, alcohol, nicotine or other drugs used to cope.
- Consider stress-reduction activities such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, yoga or mindfulness.
Ezemenari Obasi serves as associate dean for research at the University of Houston College of Education. He has a Ph.D. in counseling psychology and is a professor in the college’s Department of Psychological, Health and Learning Sciences. He also serves as executive director of UH’s HEALTH – Helping Everyone Achieve a LifeTime of Health – Research Institute.