21 Aug 2014
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What to Do When Storm Stress Hits

Stressful times can bring out the worst, and the best, as people struggle to cope.

What to Do When Storm Stress Hits What to Do When Storm Stress Hits

After a week without electricity, a woman goes into a Laundromat to get a her family wash done — but can’t get change. She flips out, and starts cursing at customers and employees.

A power lineman on a crew that has come to the area from Arkansas is asked how he‘s been received by the public. “New Yorkers are the rudest people I've ever met,” he says, describing obscene gestures and aggressive drivers trying to brush past crews.

After three and a half hours on a train from Manhattan in the middle of a nor’easter, a commuter find his car buried in six inches of snow on the unplowed top level of the parking garage. When he opens the door to the car, a mound of snow the size of a basketball hits him in the face. The man begins screaming at passersby, shouting "What are you looking at?" and "I’m a taxpayer!"

Chances are, as the region digs out from the effects of Hurricane Sandy and the nor’easter which followed it, you’ve witnessed a scene like one of these yourself.

Even for New Yorkers, living in an ordinarily high stress environment, an unprecedented level of longterm power outages, communication and transportation interruptions, long gas lines, a followup snowstorm and other frustrations have challenged their hard-won reputation for resilience. 

According to one expert in the area of stress management, it is within the bounds of predictability to find some people will fly off the handle when an unanticipated level of stress hits them.

“It’s trauma,“ says Mitchell Schare, professor of psychology and director of the Phobia and Trauma Clinic at Hofstra University. “New Yorkers are proud of our toughness. But everyone has been traumatized by this event. The nature of Hurricane Sandy was an experience well beyond the norm, and beyond the severity anyone anticipated.”

Trauma means frustration, and frustration means the potential in some people for their threshold for anger to be lower. Nerves are on edge. And some individuals displace their anger by dumping it inappropriately on another person when they perceive that something has gone wrong.

This, says Schare, is how fights break out on gasoline lines, and how store clerks or uninvolved bystanders can become the target of an enraged individual.

What’s to be done? 

While there’s no surefire way to keep emotions under control, a number of ways exist for people to reduce the risk that their anger will get the better of them. 

Creative or spiritual outlets may offer a direction for some to invest their heightened feelings. 

Counting to ten may sound like an old wives’ tale, but it can help a person get past the momentary impulse to act out. 

And a simple act of compassion — helping someone else out — may very well be beneficial, Schare said. “You have power and heat back? Invite someone in to get warm,” he advises. “Get involved in collection and distribution of clothes and food. Be cooperative and helpful with others as much as possible. It’s a way to channel how you feel, and it will actually help you to feel better.”

The bottom line to all this is setting an empathetic frame of mind for the experience, Schare said. “We all are suffering together,” he concludes. “We’re all stressed in similar ways, some worse than others. Being on a gas line is far less stressful than knowing that you’ll never be able to move into your house again."

"Put yourself in the context of the other person. In our suffering, no one is the enemy."

The day after the nor-easter had pushed many people past their limit, a store worker who was trying to handle an irate caller looked near tears when the customer hung up on her. A passerby stopped and gave her a hug, and she got teary-eyed again but smiled and thanked the stranger profusely, saying the hug had made her day.

Hofstra’s Phobia and Trauma Clinic is offering free counseling and therapeutic services for Long Islanders who have suffered great loss and hardship as a result of Hurricane Sandy. For more information please call 516-463-5660.

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