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What Are The Psychological Consequences of Surviving a Disaster?

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Mar 16th 2011

What Are The Psychological Consequences of Surviving a Disaster?Each day television images show us the devastating tragedy resulting from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. It is emotionally wrenching to watch this tragedy unfold as the numbers of dead who are discovered continue to mount. Entire families are gone, survivors have lost everything, from homes to love ones. Nuclear reactors are in emitting radiation, endangering those who live nearby. The shock and grief of the survivors is unimaginable. How can anyone cope? How can anyone deal with so much chaos?

In 2010, the Association of Psychological Science published a report called, Weighing the Costs of Disaster: Consequences, Risks, and Resilience in Individuals, Families, and Communities. Ripped From the Headlines spoke briefly with lead author George Bonnano, PhD, Clinical Psychologist, Columbia University. Dr. Bonnano is an expert on trauma and its impact.

Dr. Bonnano states that most of us underestimate the resilience of those who survive over-whelming events such as the earthquake in Japan. For example, not everyone reacts to disaster in the same way. While there are those who will experience trauma that will turn into PTSD, others, who are more resilient, will not. A lot depends on the accumulation of prior experiences, family and community support and individual sturdiness and resilience.

In Japan, and after the initial shock, people are pulling together in an effort to rescue others, provide food and shelter, find and bury the dead and supply as much support as possible to everyone who is around them. As Kazumi Saeki, a Japanese writer expressed it for The New York Times, there is no time for grief. There is too much to do before grief can be attended to.

None of this is to romanticize catastrophe. There is nothing romantic about it. However, it is necessary to keep in mind that human beings have the capacity to adapt to the most horrific of situations.

For those who may wish to find some way of helping the Japanese there are many ways to contribute. I suggest going to The New York Times on the Internet and do a search of what is available. Another way is to as in your various places of worship about the means of making some kind of helpful contribution in terms of food, clothes and etc. Yes another resource is the Red Cross.

A note of caution about wanting to help. Be cautious about those who are running a scam in order to profit no one but themselves.

Your comments are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

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