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'Social connection is everything' | How to manage emotions tied to past trauma

For anyone who's been through a catastrophic hurricane before, sometimes it can be difficult to know if what you're feeling is normal.

HOUSTON — The images coming out of Fort Myers and other parts of Florida are really hard to look at, especially for anyone who's been through a catastrophic hurricane before. Sometimes it can be difficult to know if those feelings are normal and when you should get help.

KHOU 11 digital anchor Brandi Smith talked to Dr. Ron Acierno, Executive Director of the Trauma and Resilience Center at UTHealth Houston, to get some answers.

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Brandi Smith: There's a lot of us in the Houston area who are watching what's happening in southwest Florida and there's a whole mix of emotions, right? There's empathy because we've been there. There's guilt because we're glad it wasn't us this time. There's anxiety because it could be us next time. And I know there's no normal reaction, but what are some of the expected emotions when something like this comes back up?

Dr. Ron Acierno: When you've been through a very stressful or traumatic experience, then a similar event happens and you can see it in the news, like it's happening right to you, it's natural to have echoes of those old feelings. If you were significantly affected, then you have more than echoes, you might actually have anxiety and nightmares. That's normal. It can bring back the old memories and feelings. It's a normal response. It's sort of the fight-or-flight response to become aware of the danger and your body wants you to do something about it. The only problem is humans are able to sort of internalize danger that's happening other places and to other people and still feel this way.

Smith: There's a favorite musician of mine, Jason Isbell, who wrote a song, it's about addiction, but the title is "It Gets Easier." But it never gets easy. And I feel like that's how we are five years out past Harvey. It gets easier, the city looks normal. On the outside, a lot of us look like we have everything together. But then we see something like this happen and it brings it all back. It may be a little more dull, but it's still not easy.

Acierno: I think that's a fantastic quote: "It gets easier, but it's not easy." The thing to do is to not avoid, so to not withdraw, to not allow yourself to stop doing things you want to do. To not stay in the house every time it's raining, but to go about and live your life in realistically safe situations. You don't want to drive through standing water, but you do want to, you know, go to your friend's house for the birthday party even if it's raining. Over time, continuing to do these things does make it easier. But if you've been through a traumatic experience, reminders of that traumatic experience are never easy. And that's normal. But you do have to fight that avoidance and fight that withdrawal.

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Smith: Dealing with the the normal levels of anxiety, fear, guilt, all that, at what point do you say, "OK, I might need. I might need help, I might need to talk to somebody about this?"

Acierno: That's a wonderful question. The point is when it starts to interfere with any of your life's roles: your role as a parent, your role as a spouse, your role as an employee. If you can't perform the functions that you want to perform, or you perform them with great difficulty, it's probably a good idea to talk to somebody. If you're having a lot of sleep problems, a lot of avoidance, if you find yourself not living life the way you want to because of memories or reminders of the traumatic event, that's a good clue it's interfering with your life at the level that you need to talk to somebody.

Smith: What's a healthy way to cope with these emotions?

Acierno: The healthiest way is social connection. The healthiest way is to not allow yourself to avoid and withdraw into your house or apartment and not connect with other people. We have done several studies with hurricanes and other traumatic types of events. People who had social support and social connection -- and that's somebody to talk to when you feel down or somebody to help you when you need it -- those people were inoculated against the negative effects of the hurricanes. On the other hand, people who didn't have someone to talk to, didn't have somebody checking on them, or were disconnected from their community, they had a lot more problems. So the first intervention is social connection. It's not counseling. It's not going to see a therapist. That's downstream if social connection doesn't work. But you really first need a connection to your family, friends and community and that can be in a variety of formats. It can be doing volunteer work for your community. It can be going to religious services. It can be taking an active role in checking in on the seniors in your neighborhood or doing something like that. But any form social connection is protective.

Smith: Was there anything else that you wanted to mention to make sure that people take away from this conversation?

Acierno: The main thing is what I just said: social connection is everything. It is the main feature in keeping you mentally healthy following a traumatic event. If you can have that connection beforehand, it's the main thing that's going to help you recover after a traumatic event. So the good neighbor approach goes very far toward your mental health. And that's what I would try to emphasize.

You can learn more about the UTHealth Trauma and Resilience Center and the services it offers here

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