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Recovering from Disasters

January 1998

The images of survivors presented by the media during news coverage of disasters may be misleading. Psychologists Roxane Cohen Silver and Alison Holman, conducting NSF-funded research at the University of California at Irvine, learned that survivors' emotions actually run the full gamut, and rarely follow the stereotypical pattern of distress, acceptance and recovery.

In fact, both positive and negative responses may be present within one person. Contributing factors to the emotional path one will take include the available support of loved ones and the intensity of the personal link to one's home.

Another condition discussed in the research is that of "temporal disintegration," or the inability to deal with any tense other than the present. Temporal disintegration generally occurs immediately following the disaster. "Friends, family, neighbors and coworkers need to make themselves available to listen and convey genuine concern and attention early and often," Silver says. If not, survivors of disasters may never move past the tragedy.

The research also discovered that, contrary to the stereotypical image of angry survivors, many positive survivors exist as well. "We found positive emotions of equal frequency and intensity as negative ones," Silver explains. The public's impression that all survivors become angry or depressed is the result of the media's selective portrayal of those characteristics.

One thing is very clear from the research: the support of friends and family can be the catalyst to complete recovery, and may lessen the long-term effects of living through a disaster.

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