Streets are strewn with debris: roofs ripped off, cars overturned, and glass shattered from windows. Your neighbors now live in improvised homes of scraps of wood and cardboard. You search for family and friends in shelters and makeshift hospitals. It’s been weeks since you turned on
a light, flushed a toilet or warmed a baby bottle. With bridges collapsed, roads block you in and keep aid and recovery out. You and your neighbors are on your own.
Hardships like these are very real for people around the world who fall victim to natural disasters, from the devastating landslide this spring in Snohomish County to Super Typhoon Haiyan, which struck the Philippines last November. David Sattler, professor of Psychology, traveled to the Philippines in the weeks after the typhoon to interview survivors. Sattler has made many such trips in his 22 years as a disaster researcher, learning about the mental health of people living in the aftermath of calamity.
These days, his research explores fundamental questions about who grows stronger after disasters: How does adversity brought on by catastrophic stressors promote resilience? When does living through a natural disaster cause us to reflect on what provides meaning in our lives?
These questions are central to a phenomenon known as “post-traumatic growth” or “resiliency.”
A WAY TO MOVE FORWARD
Disasters threaten our feelings of control, predictability, safety and trust, Sattler explains. They make us question when and if our lives or those of loved ones will be threatened. Regaining our confidence in each of these areas is vital to getting back on course after a traumatic event.
For many, the recovery process also includes counting their blessings.
“It is not uncommon for people to reflect on their lives as soon as five weeks after a disaster. They are asking essential questions about what they value most and what gives life meaning,” Sattler says. “This can give strength and hope and offer survivors a way to move forward.”
In his surveys, Sattler asks survivors if they have had an increase or decrease in feeling they can “count on people in times of trouble” or in “appreciating each day more.” These are two of the items on a scale measuring post-traumatic growth.
One response Sattler finds particularly interesting is the answer to the statement: “I have made new friends.”
“Eighty percent of people – across the world and following hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis – tell us they made new friends in the initial weeks during recovery,” Sattler says.
After Super Typhoon Haiyan devastated areas of the Philippines, almost three-quarters of survivors reported to Sattler that they had discovered they are stronger than they thought they were.
And 68 percent reported they are “learning a great deal about how wonderful people are.” Sattler says these numbers are similar to those reported by survivors in Thailand after the Indian Ocean Tsunami—the fourth deadliest disaster in history.
“People need help and want to help,” Sattler says. “It’s extraordinary to see communities come together. The care and compassion we show for one another in times of need is a vital lesson.”