Natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes are not only capable of causing death, destruction, and catastrophe, but they also have the power to cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), an emotional and psychological reaction to trauma.
Experts say that the devastating effects from natural disasters can linger long after the relief and rebuilding efforts take shape, as research has shown that as many as 25% of people directly or indirectly affected by high-impact disasters could be diagnosed with the symptoms of PTSD.
According to The Atlantic, following Hurricane Katrina, “Depression, anxiety, addiction and, for those who experienced life-and-death scenarios, post-traumatic stress disorder were common. In fact, one study found that rates of mental illness in New Orleans doubled after the storm. A 2012 Princeton study of low-income mothers in the New Orleans area found that even after four years, about 33 percent of its participants had Katrina-related PTSD, and 30 percent reported psychological distress.”
“Natural disasters can cause losses of homes, neighborhoods, belongings and even the death of family and friends. When exposed to life-threatening situations or those which encompass significant loss or grief, PTSD can disrupt the lives of sufferers for years until they recognize the symptoms and seek help,” says Anna Harwood, a clinical psychologist.
The video below highlights the mental health crisis in Puerto Rico that resulted following Hurricane Maria, one of the worst natural disasters in recent history.
The Effects of PTSD
According to Dr. Susanne Babbel MFT, PhD, Somatic Psychology, “These types of experiences are particularly insidious because they tend to traumatize large populations of people at once, and can result in epidemics of Survivor Guilt and other PTSD symptoms.”
The American Psychiatric Association says that PTSD sufferers have recurring intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings connected to the experience that lingers after the traumatic disaster has ended. PTSD may manifest through flashbacks or nightmares and those that suffer may feel a range of emotions such as sadness, fear, anger, detachment or isolation. Those with PTSD may avoid certain situations or get triggered by things such as noises that remind them of the event.
The American Psychological Association also cited these other common symptoms of PTSD:
- Unpredictable mood swings, with periods of anxiety and depression
- Confusion or difficulty making decisions
- Sleep or eating issues
- Fear that the emotional event will be repeated
- A change in interpersonal relationships skills, such as an increase in conflict or a more withdrawn and avoidant personality
- Physical symptoms such as headaches, nausea, and chest pain
- Repeated and intrusive memories of the event, causing physical stress reactions (e.g., sweating, rapid heartbeat, breathing difficulties, etc.
- Difficulty concentrating
Dr. Babel says, “Additionally, victims do not need to have experienced the disaster firsthand in order to be psychologically affected. For example, someone living in San Francisco with relatives in Haiti at the time of the recent earthquake could have been subjected to countless hours of television coverage, coupled with an inability to get information about their own family. This type of situation can take an emotional impact on someone even from afar.”
It’s important to note that PTSD following a natural disaster will set in at different times with each individual. Some survivors may appear perfectly fine right after, only to be plagued with symptoms months after.
How to Cope with PTSD Following a Natural Disaster
Once the disaster relief subsides, mental health clean up must begin. While it is common to feel a level of anxiety following the event, know that within a few months most are able to resume functioning as they did prior to the disaster. Those that cannot are likely suffering from PTSD, and it’s important to seek support.
If you think you or a loved one might be suffering from PTSD following a natural disaster, rest assured that there is hope. Here are a few things you can do to build emotional well-being and gain a sense of control:
- Be patient with yourself: Allow yourself to mourn, get emotional, and feel whatever comes your way, knowing that this will be a difficult time in your life. Give yourself time to heal and adjust.
- Seek support: Social support from family and friends will be a key part of your disaster recovery. Getting through your symptoms of PTSD won’t happen in isolation, so it’s crucial that you open up and lean on your trusted network for emotional support.
- Communicate about your experience. Express your feelings in whatever ways that feel comfortable for you. Whether it’s talking privately with a close family member or expressing yourself creatively, go with it and be open.
- Find local support groups. Seeking a support group in your area led by appropriately trained and experienced professionals are often available for survivors. You may find it extremely helpful and comforting to engage in group discussions with people who have experienced something similar.
- Cope with excessive stress through positive & healthy behaviors. When you’re in a period of emotional fragility, it’s important to pay attention to your health and well-being. From eating well-balanced meals and getting enough sleep to exercising, be mindful of self-care. It’s equally important to avoid or limit numbing mechanisms such as alcohol or drugs, which may delay or detract from the healing and coping process.
- Be mindful of establishing routines. In a time of uncertainty or distress, having positive routines will give you something to look forward to. Whether it’s pursuing a new hobby or taking a daily walk, these regular practices will keep you engaged.
- Avoid making major life decisions. Now is not the time to make a big change in your life such as moving or changing jobs, which tend to be highly stressful enough on their own.
If you notice persistent feelings of distress, hopelessness and are barely able to function through your daily responsibilities and normal activities, we encourage you to seek and consult a licensed mental health professional such as a psychologist or therapist. Working with an experienced professional may provide you the support, guidance, and strategies needed to face and manage the mental anguish you’re feeling.
To find a psychologist in your area, visit APA’s Psychologist Locator.
While we may not have the power to stop the forces of Mother Nature, one thing you can do beforehand is to arm yourself and those you love with information about the emotional toll that may result following a natural disaster. To provide yourself a level of comfort, be aware of potential PTSD symptoms, as well as how to cope and seek treatment if necessary.
Check out https://www.ready.gov/ to learn more about being emotionally and physically prepared both before and after a natural disaster.