It may be happening half a world away but the scenes from Japan of earthquakes, tsunamis and explosions at a nuclear plant can have a psychological impact on people watching the disaster unfold on their screens.
For those who have lived through traumatic natural disasters, like 2004’s Hurricane Ivan in Cayman, images of the devastation and destruction in Japan can bring back feelings and memories of defencelessness and distress, local counsellors in Cayman say.
Emma Roberts, a counsellor with the Employee Assistance Programme of the Cayman Islands, said: “If you’ve been through something like Ivan or had a similar traumatic experience, there is a potential that watching images like that will… heighten your fear of such an experience happening again and can make you feel vulnerable.”
She said for people living in Cayman’s low-lying islands, watching images of giant waves wiping out communities can be particularly traumatic.
She advised viewers who are finding the images on their televisions or computers distressing to not remain fixated on their screens. “Give yourself a time limit. Tell yourself I’m only going to watch this for 20 minutes and no more. Don’t stay glued to your TV for 24 hours,” she said.
She said that because information on current events is available now in so many formats – on computers, on telephones and television – it’s easy to forget that one still has the choice of turning them off.
She added that if a person is feeling unsafe or vulnerable or distressed from watching the footage of the disaster in Japan, he or she should discuss those concerns with friends or family members. “Don’t bottle it up,” she said. “If you feel it’s getting to the point where it is disturbing your sleep or you’re becoming excessively worried, seek help. Talk to a counsellor or therapist.”
Images of natural disasters can be particularly disturbing to children who realise that the scenes they’re watching are real and are not part of a television programme. Ms Roberts advised parents to be mindful of what their children are watching and to reassure the children that they are safe and that the scenes they’re watching are happening far away.
She reminded parents that there is an off switch on their TV sets or to consider changing channels when news programmes come on, if they think the content will distress their children.
Getting children involved in trying to help disaster victims can also alleviate some of the feelings of despair, Ms Roberts said. “You can talk to them about donating something or helping with the disaster-relief appeals that are starting up,” she said.
Repeatedly watching images of a tsunami destroying a town or of a building falling in an earthquake can be confusing and distressing for young children, said counsellor Terry Delaney, because they may not understand that the scenes are from the same event. “They don’t understand that it’s the same scene over and over again. They think it’s happening again,” he said. “We saw this with children with the World Trade Centre attacks, they were asking ‘Why do they keep flying planes into buildings?’”.
“It’s very important that parents supervise what the kids are watching and talk to them about it and explain it,” he said.
For adults, the images can escalate feelings of anxiety that many may already be experiencing in the wake of the financial crisis. “A lot of people are on the edge of depression and anxiety and something like this can give them a nudge over the edge as it’s something they can’t deal with or control,” he said.
While the scale of the disaster in Japan is of a far greater magnitude that what Cayman experienced with Ivan, Mr. Delaney said some of the scenes of devastation were similar and would bring back memories of the hurricane that wrecked Cayman.
However, watching those scenes could have a cathartic effect on some people who have bottled up their emotions about Ivan for years, he said. “It might lead them to finally get those emotions out and they may feel relief,” he said.
He warned though that, on the other hand, it may also have the effect of triggering intense anxiety that could leave people feeling helpless and incapacitated, especially as hurricane season, which begins 1 June, nears.
The best way of dealing with those feelings is to ensure that you have made all necessary preparations for a hurricane, such as installing shutters, having enough food and water on hand, and preparing generators. “If there was anything positive to come out of Ivan, it is that we are all so much more prepared these days,” said Mr. Delaney.
He added that people should also be reassured by the extent of aid given to countries that had been victims of natural disasters, like Haiti and now Japan. “They’re are people who are willing to help,” he said.
Fundraising efforts have begun in Cayman this week with the Red Cross setting up an account for donations for the victims of the Japan earthquake. Account information was not ready by press time.
Contributing to assistance for countries and people who have lost everything in a disaster can alleviate some of the feelings of helplessness and give individuals a sense that they can do something even when nature has taken control, the counsellors said.