Japan’s Earthquake and Tsunami

Japan’s Earthquake and Tsunami: How Americans are coping
with secondary traumatic stress – as reported by
NYC Psychotherapist and Relationship Expert Mary Pender Greene.     

New York, NY, March 17, 2011—Last Friday, Japan experienced the most powerful earthquake to hit that country since seismic measurements began. Life for millions was made worse by a devastating tsunami. In the wake of the catastrophe, many Americans are experiencing Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS).

Most people have never heard of STS—the experience of someone not directly exposed to a traumatic event, but who nevertheless suffers some of the same symptoms as those who experience the event firsthand: anxiety, sadness, confusion, anger and worry. STS is common. Many Americans are experiencing it now. Increasing numbers of them are learning to deal with it.

“The attacks of 9-11 in 2001 and natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Haiti earthquake in 2010, violated Americans’ historical sense of safety and security in their homes and their homeland,” says Pender Greene. “It’s not surprising, then, that the shock and trauma we felt back then are resurfacing at this moment. Our fears past are echoed in our fears present—in response to news of a crisis 11,000 miles away.”

“Not only do we feel for the misfortunes of people in Japan,” Pender Greene points out, “but we also identify with them and fear for our own safety and health. We absorb impressions of cars, boats, buildings and whole towns being swept away. We hear reports of thousands of dead and missing. We watch crippled nuclear plants burn and imagine distant people running for their lives. We also imagine ourselves, and we fear the worst.”

The probability that a comparable disaster might come to America’s shores is for physical scientists to calculate. How we, ordinary Americans, ought to respond to present events is for social scientists like Pender Greene to think about. “I’m seeing some very healthy responses among my clients and acquaintances, I’m glad to say. People are finding effective ways to cope with the stress they feel as they identify with Japan’s trauma.” Summarizing those coping mechanisms and methods, Pender Greene distills them into six recommendations:

1. Talk about it:  Don’t keep your feelings to yourself. Once you begin a dialogue with your friends and family, you’ll see that many of them feel as you do. This will help you realize you are not alone. Be open to their encouragement and support, and return it.

  2. Grieve:  Don’t judge yourself for your feelings. Accept them. Be prepared to experience varying levels of helplessness, worry and fear.

  3. Do something to help:  Action is one of the best ways to mitigate feelings of fear and helplessness. There are many organizations that have mobilized to help the victims in Japan. Seek them out and see how you can help by volunteering or donating.

  4. Take care of yourself:  It is easy to lose sight of your priorities when you’re anxious and uncertain about things to come, but looking after your own needs should be your first priority. Regular exercise, eating right and getting enough sleep are more important now than ever.

 5. Look to a higher power:  Talking to your spiritual mentor, if you have one, or reading books that have helped you cope with difficulties in the past can help you regain the perspective you need to manage your feelings and feel hopeful about the future.

 6. Limit making important decisions:  Although we can’t control external sources of stress, we can control our choices. You should avoid making major decisions until you’re feeling better and more balanced in your outlook.

 Pender Greene makes a final point that few would disagree with: “Life is inherently risky, often painful, and sometimes profoundly sad,” she says. “People who live it well do it with love, learning and courage.”

About Mary Pender Greene, LCSW-R, CGP Psychotherapist and Relationship Expert

Mary Pender Greene is internationally known as a psychotherapist and relationship expert. She places strong emphasis on the relationship with oneself and how it affects relationships with others. She maintains a private practice in New York City. For more information, visit