Friday, January 11, 2008

Emotional damage from natural disasters can add to stress levels long after the crisis is over

The emotional damage of tornados, floods and other natural disasters can be felt long after the immediate crisis is over, according to a licensed clinical social worker at the University of Missouri.

Families should watch the signs of stress and depression, and get help if needed, said Sherry Nelson, an MU Extension human environmental sciences specialist in Palmyra, Mo.

“People have different sensitivities to stress,” she said. “Some people are more likely to experience the symptoms of stress, depending on their physical or psychological makeup.

“The thing about stress is that it tends to pile up. Often the straw that broke the camel's back may be pretty little,” Nelson said. “It may not come up as an obvious money issue or it may come up in other ways.”

Sleepless nights, changes in appetite, excessive use of alcohol or drugs, headaches, forgetfulness, irritability, fatigue, anxiety and depression are common among people suffering from prolonged stress.

Avoidance and denial also are common, Nelson said. “Sometimes people think ‘If I just work harder, this will all come out OK.’”

That approach may work against you, she said, adding that stress can affect the ability to concentrate making a person more prone to injuries, she said.

“Depending on how severe the stress is and if we catch it early, we can do things to alleviate it,” Nelson said. “Often being able to talk about it does us so much more good than keeping a stiff upper lip.”

Nelson recommends that family members discuss their current situation and what it may mean for the future.

“Finances are not easy to talk about,” she said, but good communication among couples is an important part of problem solving. “Sometimes we figure out our own solutions by talking to someone.”

Spouses should not only discuss the family’s financial situation among themselves, they should be open with children living at home.

“Kids are pretty smart and can pick up on the fact that something’s wrong,” she said, “so it’s important to talk about what’s going on, instead of letting them guess or make up what’s going on.”

How much detail parents share will depend on the child’s age, maturity and involvement in the farming operation, Nelson said.

“You don’t have to go into a lot of specifics about the family finances,” she said. “It might just be talking about the things you can’t afford right now, for example, stopping and getting fast food.”

Talking with someone outside the family, a close friend or member of the clergy, who can be non-judgmental about the situation, also can be helpful, she said.

“Farming is often a somewhat isolated profession,” she said.

“Forming those support groups can help you get through a difficult situation.”

If the symptoms of stress are severe or if a person begins thinking about suicide, Nelson said, it is time for professional help.

“We’re talking about a situation where people are under a tremendous amount of stress,” she said. “With professional help, they can get what they need to pull themselves back from that edge.

“Mental health professional are simply another resource in coping with a health problem.”

People who need help can contact their physician, local mental health centers of the Missouri Department of Mental Health at (800) 364-9687 or visit

“Many providers offer services on a sliding scale, and services are often covered by health insurance,” Nelson said.

This information was provided by Eileen Yager, Communications Officer, University of Missouri Extension


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