In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast of the United States. I was a New Orleans resident then. Although I was fortunate to be out of state at the time, my world was destroyed. The storage unit that contained all of my possessions took on three feet of water. Overnight, my circle of friends scattered to the four winds. To this day, I have no idea what happened to some of them.
In the immediate aftermath of a tragedy, negative emotions run rampant. It would be nearly impossible to find a Katrina survivor, a New Yorker who survived the September 11 terrorist attacks, or someone who was in the theater during the July 2012 theater shooting who did not experience some challenging emotional reactions such as survivor guilt, anxiety or depression.
For most people, the negative emotions pass in the weeks and months following the crisis. But for others, the initial reaction soon gives way to a full-blown mental health disorder. The National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare conducted studies in the Katrina zone two years after the storm. According to their research, mental health professionals in the area reported sharp increases in the number of clients with anxiety disorders including phobias.
Whether or not you develop a full-blown phobia or other mental health disorder immediately after a tragedy, crisis anniversaries are tough to handle. Although most of the research focuses on PTSD, the most common crisis-related mental health concern, the anniversary date may also trigger other disorders including phobias.
In general, the risk of developing an anniversary-related reaction is largely tied to the level of direct impact that the crisis had on your life. Those who lost loved ones, faced potentially life-threatening situations, were separated from relatives, faced an unwanted relocation, or lost significant amounts of personal property are at higher risk. However, anniversary reactions are difficult to predict. Theoretically, even those who experienced only minor impacts may still be at risk.
Facing a Crisis on a Crisis Anniversary
In 2012, just a few days before the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we again faced a potential hurricane threat. Traditionally, I note the Katrina anniversary with a moment of silence and a brief thought for the ways that my life changed on that day. But this time, things were different. As we sat in our RV in a campground in Clermont, Florida, it seemed certain that the hurricane would make a direct hit. We made the decision to batten down the hatches as best we could, and then evacuate to a hotel at nearby Walt Disney World.
As we packed our most important paperwork and photographs, I was overcome by memories and fears. I cried as I locked the door to our RV, only five months old, worried that I would never see it again. Then, as fate would have it, the hurricane track shifted far to the west. New Orleans was in its crosshairs. The city would experience hurricane-force winds and storm surge seven years to the day after Katrina.
Online and in person, conversations blossomed. As we had done in the weeks following the Katrina evacuation, New Orleanians scattered around the world came together, bonded by the memories of a tragedy that few who were not affected can truly understand. While everyone in the potential path tried to apply the lessons of Katrina and make preparations early, Hurricane Isaac was a much smaller and less dangerous storm. Yet for the Katrina survivors, the outpouring of grief, fear and almost-forgotten memories was far out of proportion to the actual risks of the moment. Clearly, we were experiencing a crisis anniversary reaction deepened by the prospect of facing a similar tragedy all over again.
How to Cope
Facing a crisis anniversary is never easy. Coping with a similar crisis to the one that changed your life is extremely difficult. Putting the two together can feel overwhelming and virtually impossible. Yet we sometimes have no choice. Fortunately, taking active steps to address and resolve your concerns can go a long way toward minimizing your fears.
Talk to someone who understands-For me, speaking with other Katrina survivors helped me put my fears into perspective. It normalized what I was feeling and took away some of the sense of isolation I felt when surrounded by people who had never been impacted by a major hurricane. Some people prefer to speak with a close relative or friend, or with a mental health professional.
Implement a plan of action-Many people in our RV park told us we were "crazy" for evacuating. They were confident that Hurricane Isaac would track west of Florida, and confident in the ability of their RVs to withstand the storms affiliated with its outer bands. However, we were not comfortable with taking even a small risk. So we made an evacuation plan and executed it. The plan included finding a place to go that felt reasonably safe, packing our important papers and medications, and taking along a few treasured photos and small items. It also included moving things away from windows and cleaning out the refrigerator before we left.
Do something nice for yourself-Rather than holing up somewhere to watch the news and worry, we decided to take what we termed a "hurrication," a hurricane-inspired vacation. We chose a hotel at Walt Disney World with interior corridors and several restaurant and entertainment options to keep us busy in case we were trapped inside. When the hurricane track shifted west, we took advantage of breaks in the rain to go to the Disney theme parks and activities. We brought some emergency food along, but chose to mostly dine in table-service restaurants.
Know when to seek help-While I was fortunate that my reaction was relatively mild and easy to combat, that is not always the case. If you experience feelings of panic, ongoing and unresolvable anxiety, or severe depression, contact a mental health professional. Phobias and other crisis-related disorders respond extremely well to brief therapy options, but the longer they remain untreated the worse they tend to become. A few sessions with a therapist may be all you need to work through your reaction and feel more like yourself again.
National Center for PTSD: Anniversary Reactions. August 7, 2009. Retrieved August 28, 2012 from http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/pages/anniversary-reactions.asp
National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare. Two Years After Katrina: A Survey of Mental Health and Addiction Providers in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. August 22, 2007. Retrieved August 28, 2012 from http://www.thenationalcouncil.org/galleries/press-files/Summary%20of%20Survey%20Findings.pdf