Updated 04 July 2014

How to cope with the stress of missing relatives

Flight MH370 has been missing since March 2014. How on earth can the relatives cope with the devastating effects of the endless waiting and not knowing what happened?

It may be years before we know of the fate of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 that went missing on 8 March 2014, or that of the 239 people on board nine days after its disappearance.

Here’s more about the devastating effects of the stress on the waiting relatives.

The family and friends of those on board the missing plane have been watching and waiting since the morning of 8 March for news of what could have happened to their loved ones.

Read more on News24 on the latest news about missing Flight MH370

The relentlessness of waiting

What does this prolonged relentless stress do to people?

Normal everyday life stressors, such as work stress, financial problems or relationship problems take their toll, but this kind of uncertainty about the fate of loved ones means that those waiting for news in Kuala Lumpur must be in a horrible kind of limbo between hope, despair, exhaustion and grief.

“It’s very difficult to cope until you know what exactly it is that you are coping with, “says Professor MA Simpson, Health24's  CyberShrink.

“These poor people have now been in this situation longer than most others who have to deal with things such as missing planes. Usually news of what has happened comes quickly after the initial shock, but not in this case.”

As news of a possible hijacking broke, it gave a glimmer of hope to the waiting relatives.

No news is not good news

But in this case, no news is not good news, says Dr Simpson. Not knowing the truth, however horrible it may be, is hugely stressful in itself.

One can understand the anger directed at the authorities, but it would appear that they are not hiding anything – they just don’t know what happened.

He stressed that it was difficult to say what the long-term effects of this would be on them, as it depended on many things such as someone’s support structure, their cultural norms, and their relationship to the person or people who have gone missing.

The symptoms these people are experiencing could include anger, guilt, anxiety, sadness, and despair. Physical reactions can include sleeping problems, changes in appetite, physical problems, or illness.

Professor Simpson also speculated that people might be more nervous than before of flying– and that this disaster might not have been the result of one thing that went wrong, but several. 

If a plane is hijacked, there is no reason why it cannot also experience mechanical problems.

Read: The top reasons why planes crash

More on mourning

Previous large-scale disasters seem to point out that the impact of a disaster of this kind can have big emotional consequences.

It is normal to react to an event of this magnitude with symptoms of depression and anxiety. However, people are incredibly resilient, and in most cases, such symptoms will gradually subside over time. In a smaller group of people, symptoms persist.

Mourning is the process by which people adapt to a loss. Mourning is also influenced by cultural customs, rituals, and society’s rules for coping with loss.

People who are grieving often feel extremely tired because the process of grieving usually requires physical and emotional energy.

Read: How to help someone who is grieving

The grief they are feeling is not just for the person who died, but also for the unfulfilled wishes and plans for the relationship with the person. Death often reminds people of past losses or separations.

Long-term stress and how it affects people

But back to the effect of long-term stress on people in this unfortunate situation.

Prolonged exposure to stress is bad for your health and can result in anything from heart disease to ulcers to depression.

Stress leads to physical and/or mental tension and may be a causal factor in disease, if it becomes unrelentingly high, intense and chronic.

Read: How stress harms us

The stress reaction involves the whole body: the senses (sight, hearing, smell, touch, imagination, intuition, anticipation) perceives the trigger, the message of fear and danger goes to the brain, from there the cascade of hormones and nervous system messages flows through the blood to all the systems of the body.

The adrenal glands (stress hormones adrenalin, noradrenalin and cortisol), the heart, the lungs, the liver, the pancreas, the muscles are all on full alert.

The body is preparing to stay and fight, or run away – the classical ‘fight or flight’ response.

The only problem is that our survival is seldom directly threatened. We perceive either external or internal triggers as threatening. The body cannot distinguish between a real or an imagined, anticipatory threat to our lives.

The body and mind deal well with acute, temporary stress triggers, such as breaking hard or swerving to prevent an accident, or working hard and excelling for a limited period of time.

Read more:

The effects of chronic stress can be traced back to our genes
Are you stressed to the hilt? Take the stress test
Understanding how stress can make you ill
Ask Dr Simpson, aka CyberShrink, your pressing mental health questions
The signs and symptoms of fight-or-flight stress

Sources: Health24, Professor Michael Simpson, The South African Depression and Anxiety Group

Image: AFP

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Depression expert

Michael Simpson has been a senior psychiatric academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries, having worked at London University in the UK; McMaster University in Canada; Temple University in Philadelphia, USA.; and the University of Natal in South Africa.

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