3 Tips to Help Your Family Cope After a Disaster When You Live Abroad

Facing a natural disaster is a traumatic experience. But going through this experience in a foreign land can be even more stressful.

Credit image Jiri Hodan @ Wikimedia Commons

Living abroad and facing natural disaster: how to cope when it becomes too much!

How is it possible to make it easier for your expatriate family and yourself?

You don’t have to let your loved ones suffer needlessly. Here are 3 useful tips to help your family cope.

But first, let’s see what can happen if you’re struggling after natural disaster struck.

It has now been 3 weeks that hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast of the US. Angela, an expatriate who recently arrived to New York from Spain is still having nightmares. She frequently wakes up in the middle of the night, shivering and sweating, re-living the dreadful night, the howling winds, the lashing rain, the dangling power lines. Sometimes, it even happens during the day.

Yesterday she was at the supermarket. When she saw the light bulbs for sale in housewares, she couldn’t help but have a flashback. She remembered the lack of power during 4 days. No fridge, no warm water, no internet, no cell phone (her battery was dead). Alone with her family in an empty building. In a foreign land.

Since then, she’s struggling to resume her life as before. All what she enjoyed previously (meeting a friend for coffee, reading a good book, playing with her children) seems now unreal. At times, she feels empty, numb, as if walking in a fog.

Her children react differently. Her 4 year old boy does not want to leave her side. He can’t even stay in another room alone for 5 minutes. He’s not sleeping through the night anymore, waking up several times. He’s even asking for a bottle again in the morning. The 8 year old girl gets angry very often or bursts into tears for no reason. She has problems concentrating at school. She used to be so talkative before the hurricane. She now remains totally silent.

Angela finds it even more disturbing. She has the impression she’s got someone else’s children. They changed dramatically. She is totally disoriented. Without family and real friends around, she’s sinking into depression.

Angela and her children are exhibiting well-known symptoms of psychological trauma.

When confronted to a stressful event, you can experience 3 possible stages in your reaction:

1/ acute stress reaction, also called fight or flight response: usually appearing immediately or within minutes after the event and lasting for less than 3 days

2/ acute stress disorder: with symptoms lasting from 2 days to 4 weeks after the event

or 3/ ultimately post traumatic stress disorder (also called PTSD): lasting more than 4 weeks after the event.

It is important to mention that while PTSD is usually associated with war veterans, it can happen to anyone who lives through a trauma, especially if it is repeated several times (like hurricane Irene and hurricane Sandy one year after for example).

The main symptoms are

  • re-experiencing the trauma,
  • or just avoiding any reminder of the trauma,
  • feeling emotionally numb and detached,
  • having extreme feelings associated with guilt, fear or anger.

How Children Cope with Trauma: What You Need to Watch For

Children are not spared from trauma.

They may not show it and remain silent. They may hide their feelings for fear of making you even more sad or guilty.

They may want to go back in time, to a stage when you cared more for them and when they felt safer (stage known as regression) .

They may feel guilty, thinking that they’re responsible for triggering the event.

They may have sleeping problems or feel helpless.

3 Tips for Coping After a Disaster

If you’re still struggling to resume your “normal” life several weeks/months after the disaster struck, don’t wait.

Tip#1 Seek professional help provided by a qualified mental health practitioner (counsellor or psychologist for example).

Psychologists and other appropriate mental health providers will help you find constructive ways of dealing with the emotional impact (through relaxation or breathing techniques for example), according to the American Psychological Association. Those professionals are trained to assess your needs and have a duty of confidentiality.

But because you’re not living in your home country, finding the right person who speaks your language and is sensitive to your culture may prove to be a daunting task.

Try these options:

  • Find a local mental health practitioner referred by your general practitioner
  • Ask the HR department of the company who sent your family abroad. Explore what support they can offer you.
    They might have appointed an external mental health practitioner to help their employees. This specialist could help the whole expatriate family too.
  • Look for a mental health practitioner on the Internet.

Whatever the option you choose, keep in mind that you need to be able to trust your therapist. Check references and credentials but make up your own mind by having a preliminary discussion together. You should feel comfortable and at ease.

For more details, view the recommendation of the American Psychological Association on how to choose a therapist.

Tip#2 Beware of substance use, whether legal or illegal.

While you may feel that taking a few pills or a few glasses of alcohol temporarily relieves you from the pain, it might just add another problem: drug addiction or the inability to respond properly to the needs of your family. Refrain from over self-medication (if you have a prescription, continue to follow it if possible) and always seek for medical advice by a qualified practitioner.

Tip #3 Encourage your children to speak about the event and to express their feelings.

To foster the discussion, you can read them books, specially designed to address a traumatic experience.
Explain them that it’s normal to feel scared, angry or upset. Each person reacts differently.
In a more concrete way, you could also decide to take action and write together “thank you” letters to people who helped you for example.

Recovering after a traumatic experience takes time. But it’s possible to heal. How long will it take? Several months or several years, it’s impossible to predict. The sooner you start to do something about it, the better.

Have you ever lived through a disaster abroad? What did you do to cope afterwards? Which one of the tips here is the most meaningful for you?

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