With Winter Storm, The Pandemic And More, One Psychologist Warns Of Effects Of Compounding Trauma

“Stressor, after stressor, after stressor is just, it’s hurting us psychologically, our immune system.”

By Kristen CabreraFebruary 22, 2021 3:34 pm,

If you’re a Texan who’s feeling overwhelmed right now, psychologist Jeff Temple says you’re not alone.

Temple, who works at the UT Medical Branch in Galveston, says dealing with compounding environmental and health crises – last week’s winter storm; the ongoing pandemic; Hurricane Harvey, which many Texans are still recovering from – can take a toll.

“I used to be a proponent of what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger,” Temple told Texas Standard. “But, the research is starting to tell us that needs to be flipped on its head. It’s stressor after stressor, after stressor is just, it’s hurting us psychologically, our immune system. It’s going to have some long-term mental health effects.”

What does the research say about these compounding stressors? 

Temple says people who’ve experienced highly stressful events in the past have a higher potential of being more vulnerable to future stressful events.

“We know with combat veterans, that those that experienced the stress before going to a combat are more likely to develop PTSD than those who did not experience a stressor prior,” he said. “And so we’re starting to see the same thing, that those affected by Hurricane Harvey, for instance, are going to be probably that much worse off, having been vulnerable to this past week’s winter storm.”

The disproportionate impact on communities of color

“When someone like me, an upper-middle-class white guy who has job security, you know, I feel the effects and it affects my world and I’m struggling and I’m stressed,” Temple said. “I can’t imagine what it’s like for someone, a low-income person or a person of color who experiences everyday stress and structural violence and racism on top of all these current environmental events and the pandemic. … It has to be overwhelming for everyone, and maybe especially more for our marginalized communities.”

How can we cope?

Temple says he’s not a huge fan of the trendy term “resilience,” but says it’s relevant right now.

“We need to be resilient, and we need to come back from this and we need to have some, what we call, post-traumatic growth,” he said.

He’s seen resilience after Hurricane Harvey, which brought some communities closer, and says it’s helpful.

But coping with multiple stressors is more difficult.

“And so what I would tell them is take care of some of your basic necessities, if at all possible,” he said. “Get back to that Maslow’s Hierarchy in the sense of make sure you’re exercising right, sleeping right, eating right, not drinking too much. And taking care of some of those basic necessities before really tackling some of the bigger problems.”

Temple also says that bigger, systemic changes need to be made, as well, to prevent compounding trauma.

“We need more structural changes and we need to take care of people from a policy level. So if that means livable wages, taking care of things that are affected by climate, building a Ike Dike, for instance – these types of things that are necessary to inoculate us from future environmental events.”

What is a sign that I’m feeling overwhelmed, and what can I do about it?

Look for symptoms of anxiety or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) like nightmares or feeling like you’re reliving the traumatic event.

“For me, it’s been any trickle of water that I hear, I get nervous that another pipe has burst,” he said.

Also, notice if you’re suddenly worrying, in general, more than usual. It’s a sign the stressful event could be affecting your overall mental health.

“Everyone’s probably at that point right now,” he said. “[But] if this lasts longer than a couple weeks … that’s when you know that you might need a little extra help.”

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