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Healing after trauma: How utilizing meditation offers disaster survivors hope beyond the wreckage

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer

Following the record flooding that occurred when Hurricane Harvey lashed parts of Texas and Louisiana in 2017, many have reported post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms as a result of the harrowing experience. Drowning was the culprit in 80 percent of Harvey-related deaths, according to the European Geosciences Union.

For disaster survivors, picking up the pieces can be a real challenge, and the traumatic impacts are not always visible.

“Harvey was devastating for so many; it's hard to put into words,” survivor and Missouri City, Texas, resident Roger Hutchison told AccuWeather. “Life will never be the same for those affected by the storm – including mine."

Even now, embedded in his family’s memories are the countless hours spent huddled in fear inside their pantry amid the potential threat of tornado after tornado, as well as the unnerving feeling of evacuating their home, unsure of what devastation they’d discover upon their return.

Hutchison’s home did not flood; however, other families in the Houston area were not as fortunate as floodwaters rose and deluged houses, many of which were not located in designated flood zones.

Hurricane Harvey aftermath Nov. 2017 - AP Photo

In this Nov. 17, 2017 photo, George Dorsey, center, hugs Samaritan's Purse recovery volunteer Nikki Moore, left, outside his hurricane-damaged home in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

After Harvey, Hutchison was diagnosed with panic attacks and generalized anxiety disorder. “It has been quite a journey, but I am on the mend and doing so much better,” he said. For him, experiencing healing through meditation has made a world of difference in his recovery.

“I begin and end each day with a time of mindfulness and focused breathing,” Hutchison said. “It gives me strength and focus for the day and settles my heart and mind in the night, and I’m able to experience a deeper sleep than I’ve had in years.”

“A study of about 3,000 people found that meditation was linked to a reduction in feelings of depression, anxiety and even physical pain,” said Marlise Karlin, a mindfulness expert, humanitarian activist, author and CEO/founder of the SOS Method app, which helps those who lead busy lives carve a few minutes out of their day for meditation.

“A lot of research shows that even a few minutes of daily meditation is linked to lower stress levels, more positivity, enhanced creativity and better focus, which points out why we need it when we want to rebuild our lives,” said Karlin, who is a survivor of personal trauma stemming from her youth.

In June 2018, a soccer team of 12 boys and their coach were trapped and rescued days later from a flooded cave in northern Thailand. Their coach reportedly helped the team survive the frightening situation by teaching them to meditate.

“It took 10 days before they were even found, so imagine the state they could’ve been in; instead, they were extremely calm,” Karlin said. “Meditation is the key to overcoming anguish when you’re in a situation as dire as they were in.”

Understanding just how long trauma can remain with a person following an ordeal is essential, according to Karlin.

“Only when we understand do we realize that we need to do something about it,” she said. “It would be helpful if a person could learn some of the basic steps of meditation in advance of a traumatic event.”

Meditation accomplishes a couple of key outcomes in the treatment of the after-effects of disaster survival, said Denver-based licensed psychotherapist Ari Hoffman, who works with people on mitigating trauma-induced stress.

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“The hippocampus [located in the middle of our brains] is connected to our ability to remember things, including directions,” Hoffman told AccuWeather. “It’s also connected to the development of PTSD, which is when we feel like we can't escape the negative memories of a trauma and it feels like we are reliving those negative experiences.”

Studies show that individuals with a larger hippocampus are less likely to develop PTSD, according to Hoffman. Additional studies involving brain scans reveal that those who meditate regularly have a larger hippocampus, which could mean that their brains can heal more quickly from trauma, including natural disasters, he said.

Meditation also helps people develop mindfulness, according to Hoffman. “Mindfulness is the ability to be aware of something when it is happening. If a person who has gone through an earthquake starts to panic when he or she feels a big truck go by, mindfulness [helps them] take a step back, notice the panic reaction and think about how to respond,” he said.

Meeting with a therapist who specializes in trauma recovery is also beneficial for disaster survivors.

“[A useful treatment method] is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), which helps the brain use its natural healing abilities to process a memory so that it exists only as a memory and not as a trigger that makes a person feel like the disaster is happening again,” Hoffman said.

For more safety and preparedness tips, visit AccuWeather.com/Ready.

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