For some who live in or near affected areas, the incredible stress of the aftermath of this disaster is utterly unavoidable, and is likely to remain for months and years. But the vast majority of us are far from the devastated South, in cities and towns where we are unlikely to even encounter displaced Katrina survivors, and with no friends or family in the affected regions. Yet, we still deeply empathize with the pain of our fellow Americans who are facing such a horrendous tragedy.
This emotional connection, combined with exposure to constant media coverage of the aftermath, has made Katrina a palpable, emotional, painful, and highly stressful experience for many of us as well, as we are overcome with compassion and concern for victims and survivors, sometimes seething with intense political passions, and frustrated by a sense of helplessness and even despair.
You do not have to have been in the path of Hurricane Katrina, or have family and friends affected, in order to experience a stress response. Simply being exposed to coverage of the disaster can kick in your stress response -- the "fight or flight" response -- which floods the body with adrenaline and cortisol, preparing your body to fight or flee. This response increases your blood pressure, your heart rate, your breathing -- and diverts the body's energy away from digestion. Unfortunately, once turned on, for some people, and in particular, for those with impaired immune systems, the body doesn't know when to "turn off" this stress response.
Stress can have unintended health consequences -- even so-called "secondhand stress" as might be experienced by those who are carefully following the Katrina situation, increases the risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke, depression, infection, autoimmune disease, and weight gain. Stress is also a trigger for adrenal fatigue, insomnia, migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, stress eating, and other health problems.
You can be compassionate, concerned for your fellow Americans, and yet still do your best to protect your own health. It's particularly important for those of us with autoimmune disease, as there is an established linkage between stress and the worsening of various autoimmune conditions. Stress can be a trigger factor for a renewed flare-up of an autoimmune condition in remission, or it can worsen the intensity for someone who is actively experiencing symptoms.
Signs That You May Be Experiencing Stress
In the aftermath of Katrina, some signs that you might be experiencing excessive stress include:
- Recurring dreams or nightmares;
- Reconstructing the events surrounding the disaster in an effort to construct a different outcome;
- Trouble concentrating or remembering things;
- Questioning your spiritual or religious beliefs;
- Repeated thoughts or memories of the disaster which are hard to stop;
- Feeling numb, withdrawn or disconnected;
- Experiencing fear and anxiety when things remind you of the event;
- Feeling a lack of involvement or enjoyment in everyday activities;
- Feeling depressed, blue, or down much of the time;
- Feeling bursts of anger, or intense instability;
- Feeling a sense of emptiness or hopelessness about the future;
- Being overprotective of your and your family's safety;
- Isolating yourself from others;
- Becoming very alert at times, and startling easily;
- Having problems getting to sleep or staying asleep;
- Avoiding activities, people or places that remind you of the disaster;
- Having increased conflict with family members;
- Keeping excessively busy to avoid thinking about the disaster;
- Being tense or crying for no apparent reason.