The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow: Recovery from Mass Trauma

It was 4:31AM on January 17, 1994, when the world began to implode. At that moment, with furniture and the bed in which my wife and I had been sleeping shaking violently, and with the deafening sounds of objects falling, glass breaking and wood twisting under pressure all around us, we literally were instantaneously thrust into a nightmare. I was unable to stand on the floor as it seemed to disappear from underneath my feet as we desperately ran to our then young daughter’s bedroom, reaching her just as a tall bookcase was about to fall on her small body.

This was the Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles, a proverbial act of God, as insurance contracts describe it, whose epicenter was just a few miles from our home. The 6.7 magnitude tremor lasted only 20 seconds, but it seemed like an eternity. Millions of people instantly were united in a state of panic. Over the next many hours as we cowered under a door frame in our hallway, attempting to learn through the static filled noise from my old transistor radio what was happening outside our home, neighborhood and the world at large, we were frozen in fear, worried what all this meant, if our demise was imminent, and perhaps most significantly, wondering if the next jolt was merely an aftershock, or the prelude to “the Big One”, which we had been told for decades was long overdue.  This was my introduction to mass disaster, and the mass psychological trauma that followed. A perfect diabolical cocktail of shock, disbelief, emotional numbness, and an invasive mental fogginess akin to severe concussion.

The next days, weeks and months were beyond surreal. Massive power outages, contaminated water supplies, food shortages, collapsed highways and infrastructure, decimated local economies, dozens of fatalities and innumerable injuries, and widespread homelessness. Curfews were imposed and the National Guard was deployed. Over time, the shock and disbelief transitioned into sadness and uncertainty, and then eventually acceptance and the resolve to rebuild. Although the mobilization was swift and life returned to a new normal, the mass PTSD lasted well over a year.

But we believed in ourselves and came together as a society, persevered, and we built anew — achieving and improving upon that which was. We became stronger, wiser, and better prepared for the next challenge. The same holds true of my newly adopted city, Chicago. From the flames of the great fire of 1871, a world class city arose from the ashes and continues to thrive today. Such is humanity.

And so here we are, 26 years after the earth trembled, facing a new challenge, along with billions of our neighbors. As a practicing psychologist today as I was in 1994, I share with you below some insights into coping with trauma. People experience a variety of symptoms in the face of traumas, and these feelings by and large are a normal part of grieving and recovering. They may include:

  • Having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Experiencing sadness, depression, hyperactivity, irritability, or anger
  • Having no feelings at all or feeling numb
  • Feeling a lack of energy or feeling exhausted all the time
  • Noticing a lack of appetite or the opposite, eating all the time
  • Having trouble concentrating or feeling confused
  • Experiencing social isolation, or reduced or restricted activities
  • Thinking no one else is having the same reactions as you
  • Having headaches, stomach aches or other body pains
  • Misusing alcohol, tobacco, drugs, or prescription medications to cope

Sometimes friends and family may respond to the identical trauma differently than you. There is no right or wrong way to deal with a traumatic event. You may want to:

  • Stay alert for signs of stress in others, and then listen to them and allow them to express their feelings
  • Respect the fact that others may respond to trauma differently than you do so seek ways to support them that work with their own unique experiences and responses
  • Give support and companionship by offering understanding, patience, and encouragement, and by running errands and sharing resources as you can
  • If a friend or family member needs a counselor’s help, assist them in getting that help, including making an appointment and facilitating their attendance
  • Take any remarks about suicide seriously and ensure the person discusses these feelings with his or her doctor immediately. Go with the person to see a doctor or counselor if necessary, and if you believe immediate self-harm is possible, call 911

Finally, the healthiest thing you can do for yourself and your loved ones is to be on the lookout for changes in your own feelings and moods. Take care of yourself so you can take care of others. Consider trying to:

  • Keep to your usual routine
  • Take the time to resolve day-to-day conflicts so they do not add to your stress
  • Do not shy away from situations, people and places that remind you of the trauma
  • Be mindful and recognize that you cannot control every aspect of your life
  • Find ways to relax such as breathing exercises, meditation, mindfulness, calming self-talk or soothing music
  • Prioritize self-care by eating well-balanced meals and getting a good night’s sleep
  • Turn to family and friends for support, and talk with them about your experiences and feelings
  • Engage in fun and restorative activities, including exercise, leisure, recreational and social activities
  • Be patient and take things one day at a time 
  • Limit exposure to television and social media content about the disaster since overexposure can increase distress
  • Remind yourself and others that its normal to have many different feelings, as well as “good days” and “bad days” as a natural part of coping
  • Recognize the need for trained help, and call a mental health specialist

We continue to confront the alien invasion that is COVID-19. But as always, we shall overcome. As Olympian Dan Jansen said of persistence, “When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this… you haven’t.” Take care of yourself, take care of each other, and remember, as my mother, of blessed memory,  used to say when facing a challenge, the sun will come out tomorrow.