Tapping Your Resilience After Hurricane Katrina: Pointers for Practitioners

by the APA Board of Professional Affairs Advisory Committee on Colleague Assistance and Professional Development Staff

September 20, 2005 — Practicing psychologists, who are always called on to balance the demands of their professional work with the demands of their personal lives, face even more compelling challenges in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Psychologist-client relationships are drawing even more intensely than usual on practitioners’ skills and experience and their capacity to help during this time of national trauma.

A multitude of people have directly experienced the trauma of losing their homes and belongings as a result of Hurricane Katrina. Many more are separated from work, family, friends and other sources of support, including pets. Throughout the country, Americans have been gripped by scenes of devastation, loss and suffering.

Fortifying Your Resilience

Providing psychological services involves a number of demands. These include listening to and observing clients’ emotional, cognitive and behavioral reactions to traumatic events, their concerns for family and friends who may be directly or indirectly affected, and their questions about the meaning of these events. Meeting these demands continuously requires resilience in the face of reactions to a devastating event such as Hurricane Katrina, including the psychologist’s own response to the tragedy.
In the midst of this shared crisis, psychologists themselves may experience significant work-related stress. To fortify their resilience, practitioners must acknowledge and address their own psychological needs.

The effects of a national trauma permeate both the professional and personal realms of psychologists’ lives. Although practitioners are vulnerable to the same emotional and psychological responses as the public, if attentive to the challenge, they can manage these stresses effectively and maintain exemplary standards of professional treatment.

Recognizing Professional Challenges

Some of the professional challenges and disruptions facing practitioners in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina include the following:

  • Client regression may be triggered (particularly among trauma survivors). 

  •  Established treatment goals may be eclipsed by outside events, thereby interrupting the treatment process. 

  • Psychologists may increase their work hours in order to see new or returning clients who are trying to cope with increased symptomatology resulting from the stress of this difficult period. Some practitioners may devote extra hours to helping those in their communities involved in relief efforts. 

  • New professional role and boundary maintenance challenges emerge as psychologists share traumatic national experiences with the client (who, for example, may be particularly interested in the therapist’s personal responses and feelings about the situation). 

  • Psychologists involved in disaster response may expect to experience increased professional stress and emotionality resulting from their direct exposure to others’ traumatic injury.

  • Psychologists who have been directly affected by the hurricane face a special dilemma in balancing individual needs and professional demands. Some particular challenges for these psychologists may include: 

  • Reestablishing professional practices in new communities. 

  • Locating patients and learning about their safety. 

  • Determining personal readiness to return to work. 

  • Maintaining emotional balance and boundaries with clients even while sharing the reality of the circumstances. 

  • Balancing personal needs and the desire to share concerns with another person with professional role responsibilities when asked about personal experience or the safety of family members. 

  • Balancing patients’ considerable needs and the psychologist’s desire to provide assistance with the increased personal stress that may result from maintaining the therapist role during a time of heightened stress

A Greater Need for Self-monitoring

The extraordinary demands on practitioners during this time intensify the need for self-monitoring with an eye to self-care strategies that can help bolster professional resilience. Psychologists should be attuned to physical and emotional vulnerabilities and attend to preexisting stressors.

Ongoing realities of daily personal life and professional practice continue and will intersect with stress caused by traumatic national events. It is important for psychologists to understand that increased professional stress is a natural response to these circumstances and that the first step in managing this stress is careful attention to self-care.

Self-care Strategies

The following self-care strategies may help psychologists cope with additional professional stress in this difficult time:

Take Some Basic Steps 

  • Assume that you will need more sleep, exercise and healthy foods — just as your clients and patients do. 

  • Notice where you embody stress and attend to your physical needs as much as possible. Take advantage of support such as massage, physical therapy, exercise, meditation, acupuncture, dancing, walking or whatever adjunctive activities are personally restorative.

Focus on Personal Relationships 

  • Maintain contact with friends and family, and talk to loved ones about your experience and feelings. 

  • Shed the therapist role when not working with patients and clients. 

  • Connect with organizations in your community that are important to you. 

  • Attend to your spiritual needs, individually or within a spiritual community.

  • Engage in activities that balance work and non-work life 

  • Pursue hobbies and avocations. 

  • Even though demands on your schedule may intensify, don’t attempt to do too much. Seek necessary time away from work. 

  • Write and talk about the events and their effects, recognizing that this may feel difficult to do under unusual circumstances.

Professional Strategies

In addition to self-care, professional resilience can also be strengthened by using various professional support strategies:

Increase Interaction with Peers
During a period of heightened stress, it may be helpful to increase consultation or supervision. Don’t try to go it alone. Normalizing the difficulty of providing help while managing personal responses can be eased greatly by communicating about your reactions with respected peers or a supervisor.

Consider Personal Therapy
If the self-care and professional support efforts described here do not help over time, personal therapy may be a good strategy to aid in managing stress and implementing healthy coping behaviors.

Develop a Long-term Perspective
It may be helpful to anticipate long-term responses in connection with the crisis and plan ahead for both the demands of work and the need to manage your own experience. Also consider whether you may benefit by learning more about particular occupational risks facing practicing psychologists, such as professional burnout, vicarious traumatization, and compassion fatigue. If so, incorporate such learning into your continuing education.

Psychologists' Commitment to Americans in Need

The effects of Hurricane Katrina likely will affect countless people for a long time. Individuals throughout the country will rely on psychologists to help process the personal meaning of the events that already have taken place and will continue to occur.

Psychologists find it very gratifying to make a valuable contribution by helping others in times of trauma. Practitioners nationwide will enable themselves to continue providing a much-needed service by taking the professional and personal steps necessary to build their resilience and maintain their professional capacity in the months ahead.

This publication was developed by members of the APA Board of Professional Affairs’ Advisory Committee on Colleague Assistance and by APA Practice Directorate staff.

Revised September 2005