Thursday, October 13, 2005 - 12:00 AM

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Frequent disasters take a toll on American psyche

By Lornet Turnbull
Seattle Times staff reporter

One after another they've come — the scope of each devastation nearly impossible to comprehend.

The Southeast Asia tsunami that sweeps tens of thousands to their deaths. Gulf Coast hurricanes and Guatemalan mudslides that kill hundreds more. The earthquake in Pakistan and India that buries untold thousands — indeed whole villages — under rubble and rock.

In the past 10 months, natural disasters have come with such frequency and fury — their human toll so enormous — some Americans are developing calamity fatigue.

"Everywhere you look it's bombs or rubble," said Barbara Nombalais, who works in university communications at Seattle University and recalled a discussion this week among friends.

Those who value home, community and family see these calamities as far more devastating than someone who does not, said Susan Hawkins, Seattle University's director of Counseling and Psychological Services.

"Initially you're shocked and saddened," she said. "But what happens when you're re-exposed is that your self-protection mechanism, denial and distancing kick in. And for good reason. You can't feel intensely everything that's going on all the time and still continue to function."

Dealing with calamity

Psychologists and other mental-health experts offer these tips:

Talk to friends and family about what you're feeling or call a crisis hot line — 206-461-3222 or 866-4CRISIS.

Avoid information overload by turning off 24-hour news coverage.

Take care of yourself by exercising, meditating and by avoiding excessive use of alcohol.

Surround yourself with positive support.

Don't focus on the big problem, but rather at specific actions you can take to help.

Seattle Times staff

Like a daily diet of disaster, the scenes play out around the clock on television news and each day in newspaper headlines. And the litany of woes is not limited to nature's wrath.

Civil war rages in parts of Africa, particularly the Sudan, where thousands have been left dead and homeless. Pleas for the world's attention ring out from western Africa, where drought and famine have spawned widespread misery.

Meanwhile, the scenes of bombings and death continue unabated in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It's left many to wonder, "Is God mad at us?" said Pastor Craig Darling of Seattle First Baptist Church, recalling a question posed by a friend's mother this week.

John Scally, a New York publicist for law firms and other businesses, said the images of distant disasters become like a bad movie.

"Almost every week now there's a new disaster — a flood in China, a ferry tipping over in Sri Lanka ... ," he said.

"I'm simply tapped out — financially as well as emotionally because there's only so much you can do. And on top of that, when it's overseas, there's a total and utter disconnect."

Debbie Mandel, a New York stress-management specialist and author of a book called "Changing Habits," said people can better grasp a disaster's true impact if they can focus on the individual victims — the 4-year-old boy pulled alive from the rubble or the infant who lost both parents.

"A lot of people do shut down for self-preservation," she said. "They wonder, 'What can I do against a tsunami?' "

Only when disaster touches people personally or a celebrity embraces it, Mandel said, does empathy kick into high gear.

"We were touched by what happened along the Gulf Coast," she said. "We were enraged by it because it was in our back yard. And you heard many people asking: Is this a Third World country? How can this be America?"

Experts say it's easier to disconnect when a disaster takes place far away, happening to people who speak a different language or practice a different religion.

"As human beings, we have only so much capacity to extend empathy," Mandel said. "Everyone has a different limit as to how much stress and negativity he or she can absorb."

For those who literally are in the trenches of disaster, the stress can be even more severe.

Joyce Chiles, of Centerville, Klickitat County, who along with her husband, Paul Chiles, have dedicated their lives to helping disaster victims, said there are times when you simply must walk away.

"I remember when my husband was in Kosovo, after a while he couldn't listen to one more story about gang rape. One day he simply said, 'I'm going home now.'

"You can't push yourself beyond the limit of what you can take," said Joyce Chiles, whose charitable deeds are backed by the Christian-based charitable organization Samaritan's Purse.

Paul Chiles, a physician, left for Pakistan this week to assess the need there, after recently returning from trips to the Gulf Coast, his wife said.

She admits the large numbers of victims at times can seem so daunting that many who want to help may worry that their contribution would be insignificant.

She tells a story about a man walking along a beach, tossing back into the ocean a multitude of crabs that had been washed ashore in low tide.

A stranger noted that with so many crabs, he didn't seem to be making a difference.

Motioning in the direction of the last crab he'd returned to the ocean, the man replied: "It made a difference to that one."

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or