What Natural Disasters Can Mean For Mental Health
Whether they are natural, man-made, or technological, disasters have the potential to impact the psychological health of an individual. Around the world, floods make up almost a third of the disasters that occur, greater than any other disaster type(1). Research has shown that there are high levels of PTSD found in populations that have been impacted by large storms and flooding. In fact, in more than one study, researchers found that loss of work and income were related to mental health symptoms, and symptoms were higher among females(2).
In August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the US Gulf Coast. Unlike other disaster research which tends to show decreases in the prevalence of mental disorders over time after a disaster, following Hurricane Katrina, an increase was found (3). Nearly two years after Hurricane Katrina, there was still a high rate of hurricane-related mental health problems, including PTSD, in residents of the affected area. Research pointed to unresolved hurricane-related stress as a major factor in those problems.
Displacement may also have contributed to distress. One study examining PTSD symptoms in evacuees from New Orleans who had settled in Oklahoma, found that, almost a year and a half after Katrina, both adult and adolescent evacuees had higher levels of PTSD symptoms than Oklahoma residents who were not evacuees(4).
The Trauma Of A Natural Disaster
The Meadows Senior Fellow, Peter Levine Peter Levine characterizes trauma not by the event but by one's reactions to it and symptoms. He explains that "any overwhelming and distressing experience" can cause trauma and that trauma is only recognizable its symptoms.
Similar to many causes of trauma, natural disasters may be sudden and overwhelming. People may have lost their homes, wordly possessions or loved ones, during or after the event.
According to the American Psychological Association, the following are common symptoms of trauma:
- Intense or unpredictable feelings. You may be anxious, nervous, overwhelmed or grief-stricken. You may also feel more irritable or moody than usual.
- Changes to thoughts and behavior patterns. You might have repeated and vivid memories of the event. These memories may occur for no apparent reason and may lead to physical reactions such as rapid heartbeat or sweating. It may be difficult to concentrate or make decisions. Sleep and eating patterns also can be disrupted — some people may overeat and oversleep, while others experience a loss of sleep and loss of appetite.
- Sensitivity to environmental factors. Sirens, loud noises, burning smells or other environmental sensations may stimulate memories of the disaster creating heightened anxiety. These “triggers” may be accompanied by fears that the stressful event will be repeated.
- Strained interpersonal relationships. Increased conflict, such as more frequent disagreements with family members and coworkers, can occur. You might also become withdrawn, isolated or disengaged from your usual social activities.
- Stress-related physical symptoms. Headaches, nausea and chest pain may occur and could require medical attention. Preexisting medical conditions could be affected by disaster-related stress.
How The Meadows Can Help
While one person may find the ability to cope with a traumatic event, another may be unable to deal with the trauma by themselves in a productive manner. If you or a loved one is experiencing persistent feelings of distress or hopelessness due to a natural disaster or event, The Meadows can help you create a life of recovery, peace and healing.
The Meadows family of specialized programs and world-class in treating emotional trauma, addiction, and co-occurring conditions. To learn more about the trauma workshops and treatment programs at The Meadows, call us at 800-244-4949.
1. Disaster statistics 1991-2005. (n.d.). International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, The OFDA/CRED International Disaster Database, UCL - Brussels.
2. Kumar, M.S., Murthedar, M.V., Hutin, Y., Subramanian, T., Ramachandran, V., Gupte, M.D. (2007). Prevalence of posttraumatic stress disorder in a coastal village in Tamil Nadu, India, after the December 2004 tsunami. American Journal of Public Health, 97, 99-101.
3. Kessler, R. C., Galea, S., Gruber, M. J., Sampson, N. A., Ursano, R. J., & Wessely, S. (2008). Trends in mental illness and suicidality after Hurricane Katrina. Molecular Psychiatry, 13(4), 374-384.
4. Tucker, P., Pfefferbaum, B., Khan, Q., Young, M. J., Aston, C. E., Holmes, J., ... Thompson, J. (2008). Katrina survivors relocated to Oklahoma: A tale of two cities. Psychiatric Annals, 38(2), 125-133.