Natural disasters like the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan have a profound and lasting psychological impact on individuals and on communities.
Dr. Magda Osman, Psychology Lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London, says the disaster had a devastating immediate effect on the people of Japan, but the true psychologic impact will be felt "for some time to come."
"After about two months of rebuilding and cleaning up, we tend to experience a second major slump when we realize the full severity of the situation in the longer term," said Dr. Osman.
In this case, the double-whammy natural disaster is compounded by an ongoing nuclear scare of still unknown proportions. This man-made threat adds a different dimension to the long-term psychological trauma and efforts at emotional recovery.
Despite Japan's disaster preparedness systems, the shock of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, followed by a devastating tsunami, is a psychological minefield. For a glimpse into the complex psychology behind mass trauma, we turned to Ellin Bloch, Ph.D., California School of Professional Psychology, Los Angeles, who specializes in trauma psychology and recovery.
Dr. Bloch cautions that, unlike the grieving process that takes place when we experience loss on an individual or family level, a multiple trauma of this nature creates a sense of grief so colossal that there are "no words to put on it... no language" that can adequately describe it. Victims may be unable to describe - or to even know - what they are missing and what they need.
"What happened?" and "Why us?" are the initial questions most likely to spring to mind as victims cope with disorientation and feelings of extreme vulnerability.
In the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, there may be a heightened sense of hope and energy as first-responders from around the corner and around the world come together to save lives and get victims to safety. Media attention and the eyes of the world at the point of crisis create what is known as the "honeymoon period."
As the first-responders scatter and urgency fades, victims are left to cope with missing and deceased family members and questions about their long-term survival. Mountains of debris and destruction serve as reminders of the tragedy for years to come.
The world watched and marveled at the patient and orderly way the Japanese people responded to the aftermath of tragedy. But we should never mistake that sense of community and common purpose as a sign that individuals are without tremendous grief and fear.
As the months pass and the stress continues, physiological changes may occur. "The body begins to speak," says Dr. Bloch. Difficulty breathing, anxiety, and headaches are just a few of physical manifestations of prolonged psychological trauma.
The looming nuclear threat may have a different psychologic response than the earthquake and tsunami, with more of a tendency toward anger and blame. The lingering menace of a larger nuclear event, plus the 20 years or more it may take to comprehend the radiation's impact on the health of the population, will keep stress levels high.
Dr. Bloch notes that "context matters" when assessing psychological trauma, and we should not discount Japan's history as part of the processing of this new nuclear threat.
Atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the U.S. in 1945 gave Japan the distinction of being the only country to date to experience large-scale nuclear destruction. We cannot be certain how the Japanese people are dealing with possible reminders of those events, or if the older population may be more affected than younger ones.
Human beings play many different roles - parent, child, spouse, co-worker, friend, etc. Our self-identity... who we are, and where we belong, are largely tied to these roles. When faced with the loss of family, home, work, and community, we lose our basic grounding, our sense of self.
"We have a basic grounding in our own environment - a basic geography. Everything familiar is in place and we know where to go and what to do. Imagine the power of losing it all," says Dr. Bloch. She is optimistic that most people will recover and regain community somewhere. Most will rebuild their lives... but in a very different way. Those who remain homeless or without family will be more vulnerable to traumatic stress.
The sheer magnitude of the triple disaster makes it all but impossible to predict the recovery process. The Japanese people have long relied on cooperation and orderliness, and there is no reason to believe this will change.
Calm leadership and organization of essentials like food, clothing, medical care, and housing will go a long way toward recovery.
When asked about the process of healing psychologically, Dr. Bloch acknowledges that "Basic survival needs must be met before victims can even begin working on psychological counseling in a traditional sense."
Only when these basic needs are met can communities turn toward emotional healing. Financial donations aside, direct help from those unfamiliar with the culture may overwhelm the community, and perhaps even be viewed as interference rather than assistance. Community outreach programs led by people who are embedded in the culture and language will be better able to help with emotional recovery.
In time, cultural events can be used to help people express feelings. Participating in nonverbal communication activities like art, music, and dance can help adults and children express their feelings with less pressure.
"I'm hoping that sort of help will be available if the Japanese wish to accept it," said Dr. Bloch.
Sources: Ellin Bloch, Ph.D., California School of Professional Psychology, Los Angeles, Alliant International University, Specializing in Trauma Psychology and Recovery; Queen Mary, University of London (2011, March 17), Psychological impact of Japan disaster will be felt 'for some time to come'. ScienceDaily.
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Ann Pietrangelo is a freelance writer covering a wide range of issues, most notably multiple sclerosis patient advocacy, health care policy, and healthy living.
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