Dealing with the stress of natural disaster
By Kylie Blanchard

An immense number of sandbags were filled and hauled, hundreds of houses were cleared of precious belongings, and miles of protective structures were built through an enormous community effort in preparation for the Missouri River’s unprecedented flooding.

Although the physical effects of this historic event are at the forefront of the flood fight, many displaced and disrupted individuals, families and neighborhoods are also dealing with the mental strain of the flood.

“Disasters such as floods tend to increase stress levels for prolonged periods of time,” says Dr. Mark Doerner, a clinical psychologist with Medcenter One’s Mental Health Center. “This may first have increased when the initial predictions of the flooding started to circulate and could continue through clean-up. It could possibly last for some time afterward for those who lose property and possessions and will experience the stresses of grieving and rebuilding.”

Dr. Doerner says high levels of stress can take a toll on both the mental and physical health of an individual, and people often exhibit stress in different ways. The signs of stress may include:

• difficulty sleeping
• sleeping too much
• change in appetite
• weight loss or gain
• difficulty concentrating
• feeling irritable or on edge
• feeling disorganized or overwhelmed
• feeling anxious or afraid.

“Some people may feel empty, apathetic, defeated, or say they feel nothing. Others may be more angry than usual, argue more often, or stay angry longer,” says Dr. Doerner. “Many people experience a combination of these signs, and sometimes the signs change over time.”

He says it is important to find appropriate coping mechanisms to ensure the individual’s continued well-being. “Stress is a normal response to an abnormal situation,” says Dr. Doerner. “The first step to addressing a problem is to admit there is one. The next step is to identify what causes the stress and how stress affects a person mentally and physically. Then, it’s time to start doing things to reduce stress.”

This process is important to giving both the mind and body periodic breaks from stress. Dr. Doerner encourages those impacted by flooding to also remember to get adequate rest, continue with a routine and maintain close relationships.

Family and friends are important resources in dealing with stressful situations, says June Lehr, a home health nurse with Custer Health. “It’s very important to find someone you can talk to; a non-judgmental, good listener.”

Lehr herself has been displaced by the flood, having been evacuated from her home on Hoge Island. She says many people have made a difference in her coping with the flood’s impact on her life. This has ranged from friends simply asking her how she is doing to strangers offering to make her dinner in their home as a reprieve from living in a hotel.

“Sometimes we don’t think our smiles or greetings are making a difference, but they can make a big difference during times of crisis,” she says. “I don’t know why I am still standing, but I attribute that to my faith, my family and those surrounding me.”

Lehr says she has focused on keeping herself busy which, for her, means working as a nurse. “It has really been helpful to me to continue to help others.”

Dr. Doerner says one of the most important steps people can take to help those impacted by flooding is to listen. “It’s ok to ask if they want to talk about it,” he notes. “Many of us are reluctant because we don’t want to provoke any kind of pain in people we care about. Trust they will talk about it if they want to and know that talking about it, and being heard, is some of the best medicine available.”

Lehr says this type of help can also be found if an individual reaches out to a primary care provider, clergy or support group. “It is just important people know they are not alone in feeling this way and there is help out there.”

In addition, immediate help is available by calling 211 and asking for information about mental health counseling. “The important thing is to seek help if you or someone you know is struggling,” says Dr. Doerner.

Mental health in times of crisis is just as important as physical health. “Our minds and our bodies are inseparable and intertwined,” Dr. Doerner notes. “Most people won’t wait long to see a doctor if they have a chronic ache. Why not get some help when you’re feeling uncomfortably anxious, sad, scared, or angry? Your mental health is at least as important as your physical health, maybe more so.”

Children are also affected by stressful events and Dr. Doerner says the stress experienced by children is directly related to how the important adults in a child’s life are being affected by their own stress.

Young children may have difficulties separating from caregivers and be more emotional or demanding. Children in elementary grades may have more anxiety, sleep problems, mood swings, and be less consistent in their behavior. Older children may exhibit many of the same signs of stress seen in adults.

“Most children can be expected to have less knowledge of and less experience with ways of coping with stress than an adult,” he says. “On a positive note, most children can learn effective stress-busting strategies rather quickly.”

Dr. Doerner says the ultimate goal in a time of crisis is to find and use healthy ways to manage stress. “Sometimes disasters, no matter what form they take, create opportunities for us to improve ourselves over time,” he notes.

Lehr says it is also important to remember, as a community, everyone is dealing with the stress caused by the flood and needs to support each other. “We’re all in this together,” she says. “Although some people were not affected directly, we all need to be here together.”

For additional information contact the Medcenter One Mental Health Center at 701-323-6543 or Custer Health at 701-667-3370.

Mental Health Resources
There are many mental health resources available in the Bismarck-Mandan area. The following are just a few of those in the community:

American Red Cross West Dakota Chapter

Archway Mental Health Services

Bismarck-Burleigh Public Health

Medcenter One Dakota Children’s Advocacy Center

Mental Health America ND
701-255-3692West Central Human Services
701-328-8899 (24 hour Crisis line)

Website Resources for Information and Support