Share Pain to Heal from Natural Disasters

Natural disaster survivors cope through faith and sharing feelings and experiences with others

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Natural disasters can strike any time anywhere. For those who will develop emotional issues in the aftermath, coping strategies can be important, especially if people lack other resources.

Only 5 to 10 percent of individuals affected by a natural disaster will go on to develop serious mental or emotional health issues, according to the World Health Organization.

A recent study looked at how individuals with limited resources coped after a major natural disaster.

Some of the factors that helped individuals cope were external support from family and friends, religious belief and faith, and personal strength.

"Seek support to cope with natural disasters."

The study, led by Samanthika Ekanayake, MSc, of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, Canada, investigated coping methods of people in Sri Lanka after the tsunami at the end of 2004.

The researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 38 adult survivors of the tsunami three to four years after it occurred.

The participants had experienced a range of effects from the natural disaster, from losing family members to losing their homes, to being resettled away from their original towns.

Five of the individuals had post-traumatic stress syndrome and three had major depression. Seven had symptoms of depression or anxiety but did not have either full disorder.

The strategies the survivors used to cope with the aftermath of the disaster fell into five major categories: resilience and faith, sharing pain, becoming engaged, private grief/public mourning and outside aid.

"Many, particularly women and older participants, talked about the importance and relevance of their faith and religion, and sought to make sense of their losses through their religious faith and beliefs," the authors wrote. "The inner strength described by some individuals that enabled them to recover from the emotional trauma of the tsunami derives from faith and religious belief."

Not all the individuals found solace in their faith. Some who lost close family members, especially children, struggled with their faith.

Sharing their pain by talking to others, even beyond friends and family, was another coping mechanism the participants found helpful.

"Almost everyone in the study group talked about the significance of informal social resources such as interpersonal networks of family, friends, and neighbors in coping with the emotional and practical consequences of the tsunami," the authors wrote.

Another coping mechanism that helped the participants was becoming engaged in other activities, whether it was work, leisure or religious rituals.

Helping others to clean up, search for missing people and mourn was also an important coping tool for many.

The category of grief and mourning involved individuals who coped by collecting reminders, like photographs or souvenirs, and displaying them publicly.

"These monuments transform private grief into a form of public mourning, in which respect and love for the dead is outwardly displayed," the authors wrote. "In effect, the loss and sorrow is shared with the community and in the process managed and, ultimately, healed."

Some of the participants were better able to cope because of receiving humanitarian aid, but not everyone felt the aid was helpful.

"Many participants were still critical of what they saw as disorganized relief distribution together with unfair compensation and suggested this compounded suffering and caused additional burden," the authors wrote.

Meanwhile, many of the participants chose to get counseling and support from their traditional healers rather than from volunteer psychologists or counselors.

"Participants reported that getting support from traditional healers was commonly used to overcome sleeping problems, fearful dreams, and screaming during sleep or flash-backs," the authors wrote.

In general, the researchers found that the most common helpful coping mechanism for these individuals was sharing experiences or feelings with others.

"Participants often emphasized the importance of cohesive communities and extended families as sources of help," the authors wrote.

"The strength of social support in enabling individuals to cope with emotional distress consequent on trauma has been commonly identified in previous studies conducted in both Western and non-Western countries, and these have further highlighted the risk of long-lasting mental health problems in the absence of support," they wrote.

The study was published in March in the journal World Psychiatry.

The research was funded by the UK-Sri Lanka Trauma group (as part of a grant from Catholic Agency for Overseas Development) and Psychiatric Research Trust, UK. No disclosures were noted.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
May 21, 2013
Last Updated:
August 5, 2013