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Recovery After Hurricane Can Be Emotional, Too, UCF Trauma Experts Say

Every night around midnight for a week, Shawn Richichi woke up to see his youngest son, 4-year-old Zachery, standing by his bed, scared.

Having endured Hurricane Irma the week before, Zachery wanted to be close to his father, seeking a source of comfort and support, like many other people affected by Hurricane Irma’s journey across Central Florida.

As areas slowly recover from powerful storms, including hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, some people may find that their needs are not just tangible, but emotional, too.

Trauma can affect people regardless of age, but it may manifest in different ways, including in children, said Ana Leon, a professor in UCF’s School of Social Work.

Some ways trauma can manifest itself include anxiety, exhibiting hypervigilant behaviors and dependence on people, nightmares, and sleeping and eating problems, among other signs.

People deal with trauma in different ways, from taking medication to finding a safe place to deal with it, Leon said.

“The thing about natural disasters like a hurricane is that they are equal opportunity stressors,” Leon said. “Now everyone handles stress differently. And how they get through it depends on several factors including what kind of support system they had in place prior to the trauma. Having a strong support system is reassuring to adults and children and helps individuals and families overcome the stress.”

For Zachery, his safe place was with his father at night.

“A lot of parents forget the mentality of a child; they don’t see everything the way we do,” said Richichi, UCF Center for Law and Policy relations coordinator. “It’s important, as a parent, not to brush off a kid’s emotion as pointless.”

His 7-year-old, Ayden, also exhibited anxiety during the storm, mainly from picking up on the anxiety from his father.

“Ayden stayed up with me, watching his iPad,” Richichi said. “But he could tell I was getting concerned because we have a massive oak tree in our neighbors’ back yard and it was moving [in the wind].”

Shawn made sure that, throughout the experience, he reassured both his sons that everything was going to be OK, which is very crucial for children during traumatic experiences, Leon said.

Even after a traumatic experience, people can experience “trauma triggers” – experiences that remind a person of their previous traumatic experience, Leon said.

Shawn saw that with Zachery the week following the hurricane.

“Tuesday night, there was a massive storm with lightning and thunder and he got really freaked out,” he said.

James Whitworth, associate professor of social work, has done research on the effects of trauma among adults, particularly older adults and military families. He also pointed out that following the first traumatic experience, it can be more likely for someone to experience trauma symptoms.

“When we are facing a threat, our brain goes into a more basic, primal, survivor mindset,” Whitworth said. “The brain says, ‘I’ve been here before, so I need to get out of here now.’ It doesn’t take as much to trigger it.”

Both Whitworth and Leon said that offering tangible support is crucial to helping people experiencing trauma, but that relational support is important, too.

“We recover from trauma in the context of relationship,” Whitworth said. “It doesn’t always have to be a licensed therapist; it could just be a friend. And a listening ear.”

For children, reassurance from a strong support system can make a major difference in how children recover.

“After receiving the necessary support, people will come out of their trauma in their own way,” Leon said. “We cannot rush anyone into overcoming a trauma; it has to happen at each individual’s own pace.”

UCF students seeking help can contact Counseling and Psychological Services at 407-823-2811. For others in the community, see here [1] for a list of local resources.