Typical news reports, documentaries or movies about the aftermath of disasters, such as the recent tornadoes in Texas and floods in North Dakota, portray survivors progressing through predictable stages of emotions. These start with distress, then, ultimately, acceptance and recovery.
A National Science Foundation (NSF) -supported study reveals that this pattern is more stereotype than norm. In fact, emotions may run both positive and negative in the same person. The more likely individuals are bolstered by early support from family, friends, co-workers or other assistance groups, the better they cope over time, according to researchers.
Psychologists Roxane Cohen Silver and Alison Holman at the University of California at Irvine interviewed 85 people within 36 hours of returning to their homes after being victimized by the 1993 fire storm that struck California's Laguna Beach and Malibu. The researchers checked back with the same people several times over two years to track their emotional recovery.
The researchers found that, contrary to what is usually portrayed in the news, not everyone feels great distress after enduring a catastrophic event. It is also true that not everyone recovers.
"The news media almost never convey positive emotions among survivors following a disaster, yet we found positive emotions of equal frequency and intensity as negative ones," Silver says. Media overemphasis on the negative has led the public to expect only to see anxiety, anger and depression, ignoring the alternatives, she explained.
The widespread presence of positive emotions in the immediate aftermath of trauma may be a sign of a critical coping mechanism in humans, say the experts. However, coping depends on available support. The more social support survivors receive immediately after a disaster, the less likely they are to experience distress later on.
"Friends, family, neighbors and coworkers need to make themselves available to listen and convey genuine concern and attention, early and often," Silver says. Support is especially important in the first few weeks, when survivors are likely to be irritable and tense at home or at work. They will need a lot of patience and understanding from others, the researchers' study reveals.
Immediately after a disaster, survivors can also experience a condition called "temporal disintegration," in which they are able to focus only on the present and lose their sense of past and future. Numerous factors in a person's life can contribute to how soon and how well they move beyond this condition.
Some never do.
As part of the NSF-funded study, Holman asked disaster survivors what things they had taken or wished they had taken with them when evacuating their homes. Responses ranged from the practical to the personal.
"People who reported that they took memorabilia - photo albums or heirlooms - tended to have a greater loss of continuity in their lives and a harder time overcoming the trauma of the event," says Holman.
It may be, the researchers conclude, that people who link their lives closely with lost possessions feel their identities are threatened when disaster strikes.