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Natural Disasters and Mental Health

Written by: Alies Barton, MSW, LCSW

What is a Natural Disaster?

Natural disasters consist of events that cause great damage or loss of life. Currently, the state of North Carolina is in the middle of Hurricane Florence, a natural disaster that has lasted for days. It is a disaster that we anticipated days before and one that will last for weeks, months and even years after. Other types of natural disasters include tornadoes, floods, wildfires, earthquakes, and droughts. Some of these disasters are ones that can’t be predicted and thus we are unable to anticipate.

Anticipating a Disaster:

For the disasters that we do know about, we can prepare for them. For example, with Hurricane Florence, the news was reporting on it a week before it ever made landfall. This can be beneficial, but it can also make one’s anxiety go through the roof. NOT ALL ANXIETY IS BAD. There is healthy anxiety, WHICH triggers the fight or flight response AND THIS IS WHAT LEADS A PERSON TO PROTECT THEMSELVES. When thinking about preparing for a hurricane, someone who exhibits healthy anxiety will take the necessary measures to prepare for it, e.g., evacuate, stock up on food, water, candles, batteries, etc. For others, anxiety may take over and it could make it very hard to make decisions. You may start to worry excessively, seek reassurance from others, find it too challenging to control your thoughts or even feel like your head is about to explode. This could lead you to feel edgy, tired, unable to concentrate, and/or irritable, making it hard to act to protect yourself.

What to do if your anxiety is too overwhelming:

During these stressful times, it is important to try and stay calm. If it helps, make a list of what you can do to prepare. Go down the list and check off each item. Seek help from others (e.g., family, friends, or neighbors), as others may be going through the same thing if they live nearby. Community can be very beneficial during a time like this. Realize that excessively worrying won’t change the situation but will actually just make you feel worse! Come up with a rational thought to replace the excessive worry, such as, “I’ve prepared as much as I can for this storm.” The thing about natural disasters is that they are out of our control. So all we can do is prepare as much as we can and then see what the damage is after the event.

Mental Health Impact After a Natural Disaster:

Recovery after a natural disaster can be a long stressful process (e.g., physically, financially, and psychologically). It is normal to experience fear, anxiety, sadness and/or shock after a disaster. If these feelings linger for months, it could become a serious problem. Post-traumatic stress disorder “PTSD” is very common for one to develop following a disaster, as lives can be turned upside down. You may lose a house/sentimental items to flooding or high winds; you may lose electricity for weeks; a tree could have fallen on your car; or you may be displaced and unable to get back to your place of employment. Loss and displacement can contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety.

What to do:

Seek treatment! Just like you would work on rebuilding your home, you must also think about rebuilding your mental state. There are many types of treatment available to help a person process and move past their traumatic experience. For example, there is Psychological First Aid, Crisis Counseling, and Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Try to find a clinician who specializes in trauma focused therapy so that they can help you rebuild your mental state.

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