Natural disasters affect millions of people every year. Earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, fires, hurricanes and tsunamis are catastrophic events that destroy homes and lives. While we can prepare for natural disasters and predict them to some extent, nothing can completely stop them from happening.
Statistics tend to count up the lives lost and economic devastation of these events, but it is less easy to quantify the psychological impact of a disaster. The people left in the wake of these events have lost homes, loved ones and sometimes an entire way of life. People are resilient — they begin to pick up the pieces of their lives and rebuild, but that doesn’t mean the effects of a natural disaster don’t linger.
The Psychological Effects of Natural Disasters on Mental Health
Trauma can profoundly change a person. Living through the destruction of your home and maybe even the loss of people you love will often have an impact on your mental health. Here are three of the most common psychological effects of disasters on human life:
1. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Anyone who has experienced a life-threatening or terrifying event can develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). A natural disaster certainly qualifies as a traumatic, life-threatening experience. PTSD can manifest immediately after such an event or develop much later. It can resolve within a few months or last for years — every person is different. Symptoms of PTSD are categorized into different groups:
- Arousal: Continually struggling to control your startle reflexes is an example of an arousal symptom. A lingering tension that you cannot seem to shake can be another type of this symptom.
- Avoidance: Avoidance symptoms are just how they sound. If you avoid thinking about the experience you had or even physically avoid things that will remind you of the event, you could be suffering from PTSD.
- Mood: Mood symptoms include struggling with feelings of guilt and struggling to maintain the same level of interest and enjoyment in your life.
- Re-Experience: Re-experiencing symptoms, such as reliving the experience through your thoughts or dreams, are potentially the most recognizable symptoms of PTSD. This is also often referred to as having flashbacks of the event.
Depression is a common mental health issue that can arise following a traumatic event, although depression does not have to be related to trauma. Additional factors like genetics and other health issues can be contributing factors.
Depression can be accompanied by a wide variety of different symptoms. You might experience lingering sadness, restlessness, issues concentrating, problems sleeping or an overall feeling of hopelessness. Depression can even cause physical symptoms like changes in weight or pain.
Symptoms and their severity will be different for every person. Depression is typically diagnosed when symptoms last for more than a few weeks.
Anxiety is a natural feeling that everyone experiences at various points in their lives. As a mental health issue, anxiety is a persistent issue with a variety of symptoms. Anxiety comes in many different forms such as generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder. Anxiety can develop anytime, but it’s one of the most common mental health issues to arise after experiencing the trauma of a natural disaster.
Generalized anxiety disorder has symptoms such as constantly feeling on edge or afraid, difficulty sleeping, muscle pain, fatigue and lack of ability to concentrate. Panic disorder may have some of these symptoms, but this mental health issue is characterized by panic attacks. During a panic attack, you might feel your heart race, experience shaking hands or have difficulty breathing.
Signs of PTSD Caused By a Disaster
Anyone who experiences a natural disaster is going to react differently. Feelings of helplessness, anger and sorrow will be common, if not universal. But how do you know if you’ve developed PTSD after a natural disaster?
Flashbacks are one of the strongest indicators of PTSD after natural disasters. Do you find your thoughts constantly being drawn back to what you witnessed during the event? Flashbacks are more than mere memories — they’re intense, vivid thoughts that you cannot control. They’re often accompanied by physical symptoms like a racing heart, sweating and shaking.
Following a natural disaster and all the devastation it brings in its wake, you might find yourself constantly afraid it will happen again. If these feelings are intense and persistent, this might be another sign of PTSD.
The signs of PTSD can be more subtle. You might have trouble sleeping, eating and concentrating. You might find you’re withdrawing from the people you care about, or that you’re being unaccountably irritable or aggressive. These symptoms are commonly associated with anxiety and depression, as well as PTSD.
Mental health issues are rarely cut and dry. The symptoms might be subtle, or they might be very apparent. You could be suffering from more than one problem. Having PTSD doesn’t mean you can’t be grappling with anxiety and depression, as well.
Psychological Effects of an Earthquake
Earthquakes are one of the most common natural disasters. Earthquakes can happen anywhere, but are much more likely to occur along fault lines. For example, the majority of earthquakes happen within the area nicknamed the "Ring of Fire," which encompasses the west coast of the United States, South America, Central America, the southwestern Pacific and more.
Earthquakes can cause an incredible amount of damage, particularly in densely populated areas. The movement of the earth can cause the collapse and complete destruction of buildings. Fires and floods can occur as damns, pipelines and power lines are damaged during the natural disaster. Landslides and tsunamis can follow in the wake of an earthquake. If an earthquake is strong enough, damage to property is just one outcome. People can lose their lives, too. Survivors can be left homeless and grieving for lost loved ones. The trauma this causes is significant.
When a 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit Nepal in 2015, the earthquake left more than 8,000 people dead. A total of 8 million people were affected by the aftermath of the natural disaster. Just this year, a 7.1-magnitude earthquake hit Mexico, inflicting serious damage on Mexico City and causing the deaths of 119 people.
Suffering from PTSD after an earthquake would hardly be unusual considering what the people who experience them go through during and after such an event.
Psychological Effects of Hurricanes, Tornadoes and Flooding
Earthquakes are just one type of natural disaster. Others, like hurricanes, tornadoes and flooding, can cause just as much devastation. Hurricanes come with gale force winds and extremely powerful waves that can sweep everything a person holds dear away in minutes. Similarly, tornadoes and floods can tear through homes and leave an unrecognizable landscape behind.
Each of these natural disasters can take lives. The people who do survive are left to rebuild, sometimes from the ground up. Hurricanes, tornadoes and flooding can devastate infrastructure. Two months later, Puerto Rico is still struggling to recover weeks after Hurricane Maria hit. The people on the island don’t have power, and most don’t have access to running water. Food and supplies are scarce.
Just weeks before Maria hit, Hurricane Irma swept through the Caribbean and the southwestern coast of the United States. The storm affected 70,000 square miles and necessitated the evacuation of millions of people. People are still trying to rebuild their lives following Irma and the preceding Hurricane Harvey. Nearly a decade later, New Orleans is still working on fully rebuilding following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
Hurricanes and other natural disasters of this magnitude cause billions of dollars in damage and years of recovery. The people who live through that trauma must come to terms with what they lost, whether it’s the home they’ve spent years creating, loved ones or both.
Communities still struggle years after such an event, and that struggle extends all the way down to the individual level. The slow pace of recovery can cast a long shadow on anyone’s mental health. Anxiety, depression or PTSD could develop as people try to put their lives back together following the ruin caused by a hurricane, flood or tornado.
Psychological Effects of Wildfires
Hurricanes and earthquakes tend to take center stage when people discuss natural disasters, but there other natural disasters, like fire, that can be just as traumatic. Wildfires are a natural part of a forest's life cycle, but if that fire rages out of control, it can spread to where people live. Fires can destroy businesses, homes and lives in rapid succession.
Losing so much so quickly can trigger strong emotions. People often experience grief, anger and an overwhelming sense of helplessness. Some people survive the fire, but with severe injuries caused by burns. This can cause even more emotional stress to bear. Living with severe burns entails a grueling physical and psychological recovery process. Patients may fall prey to anxiety and depression. PTSD related to the event is also not unusual.
Wildfires have been raging in California resulting in emergency evacuations and the destruction of dozens of homes. Wildfires have also been racing through Montana, burning more than 1 million acres of land. Many people who live in those areas have been forced to abandon their property to save their lives. Homes and businesses can always be rebuilt, but that doesn’t mean the cost — both financial and psychological — isn’t extremely high.
Tips for Recovering from Trauma After a Natural Disaster
Anytime people experience a traumatic event, they need time to process what happened, grieve and recover. Natural disasters are no exception. Here are six tips for coping with natural disasters and their psychological impact:
1. Give Yourself Time to Mourn
Natural disasters can leave a gaping hole in people's lives. Where there was once a home, a business, a spouse, a friend, a coworker — now there is nothing. Suffering such a blow is never easy. You may feel numb or completely overwhelmed. You might suffer from survivor's guilt. You might wonder if you’ll ever be able to recover fully and rebuild your life. These feelings are common reactions to major trauma, and knowing you’re not alone doesn’t always make the experience easier.
Remember to allow yourself the space and time to mourn. It doesn’t matter whether someone has lost more than you. This doesn’t mean you’re selfish for grieving what has been taken from your life.
Grieving is a different process for everyone. The way you grieve may be different from someone else, but it’s important to make communication a part of your process. Write down how you feel. Talk to the people who you care about.
Don’t berate yourself for needing time to feel the loss of a loved one or your home. Instead, offer yourself patience and understanding. Processing and experiencing grief is about taking small steps. Don’t expect to wake up one day free of grief — take each day as it comes. As clichéd as it may sound, grief takes time. Give yourself that time without judgment.
2. Work With the Community to Rebuild
Helplessness is one of the strongest feelings you might have following a natural disaster. There is nothing you could’ve done to stop nature from taking its course. Instead of allowing that feeling of helplessness to take over, do something to counteract it.
Communities need to rebuild following a natural disaster, and you can be a part of that. Even if you don’t have the financial resources to give, you can donate your time and your skills. Volunteer to help the injured. Help clear debris. If you see a safety issue, report it. Reach out to local authorities and ask if there is anything you can do.
Little by little, communities can and do recover from natural disasters. The more people pitch and work together, the quicker a community can bounce back. You can be a part of that. That sense of accomplishment can be a big help in your own personal recovery.
3. Try to Create a Routine for Yourself
Building a routine for yourself can go a long way toward finding your way back to normalcy. You can try to return to the routine you had before the natural disaster struck. Focus on going to bed and getting up at the same time. Eat meals at the time. Go to work, if you can. Spend time with the people you care about. A routine can help you cope with the fallout of a natural disaster.
It can also be helpful to integrate new things into your routine. A natural disaster is a transformative experience. Your life might not go back to exactly how it used to be, but that doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. Discover a new hobby and set aside time dedicated to it every day. Push yourself to try a new type of exercise.
It may be hard to stick to a routine at first. So much in your life has changed, but dedicating yourself to a daily regimen can keep you focused on what you consider most important in your life. Whatever routine works for you, remember to include positive activities that will help you move forward.
4. Take Care of Yourself
Strategies for how to deal with natural disasters will vary from person to person, but one thing everyone should remember to do: take care of yourself. Between helping other people and participating in rebuilding efforts, you can get lost in the shuffle.
Don’t forget to feed yourself. Avoid skipping a full night’s rest. Commit to eating healthy meals and a regular sleep schedule. Work regular exercise into your life. A healthy diet, sleep schedule and exercise routine will benefit both your physical and mental health. Ignoring your health won’t help you or your community to rebuild any faster. If anything, it will slow you down.
Take stock of your mental health. It can be hard to recognize when you’re struggling with PTSD, anxiety or depression. You might dismiss your feelings as a typical reaction or try to ignore them entirely. Your mental health is just as important as your physical health.
It can be tempting to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. Taking refuge in substances that can help you forget your feelings for even a little while has a lot of appeal, but using alcohol or drugs as a crutch is not an effective coping mechanism. Rather than chasing numbness, address your feelings head on. This may be more painful in the short-term, but it’s healthier for you and for the people you care about in the long run.
5. Identify Your Support Resources
Natural disasters affect millions of people, but recovering from this type of event can be an incredibly isolating experience. Instead of thinking of yourself as alone, look for support options. Talk to your friends and family. They might be feeling exactly the way you are. If they didn’t experience the natural disaster, they’ll still want to help you in any way they can — even if that means just lending a shoulder to lean on and a willing ear.
You can also look for local support groups. Groups, often led by professionals, bring together people who have lived through the same disaster that you have. You can share your feelings and struggles in a safe environment with people who can relate. Having people listen and share their own stories can be a very powerful tool to use during your recovery. If you’re too nervous to talk at first, just listening can be incredibly helpful.
Whatever type of support you prefer — the people you care about in your life or a community group — do not dismiss the offer for help. You can offer your own help in return. There is strength to be found in one another.
6. Get Help From a Professional
Natural disasters and mental health have a clear connection. Living through the destruction of your home, the loss of a business, injury and/or the death of a loved one is undeniably traumatic. If you find yourself struggling with mental health issues, you’re not alone amongst natural disaster survivors.
It might be difficult to admit you need help, but be kind to yourself. Reach out and find the help you need. A trained mental health professional can help you process that trauma and suggest ways to move forward. A professional may try several different approaches, such as cognitive behavioral therapy or somatic experiencing.
Trauma affects everyone differently. You might benefit from group therapy or one-on-one sessions. If you’re suffering from severe mental health issues following a natural disaster, you might benefit from an inpatient program. This type of intensive, personalized treatment can help people make strides in the recovery process. Your mental health is a vital part of your overall health. If you need help, don’t hesitate to reach for it
Brookhaven Retreat offers a variety of comprehensive treatment options. Our holistic approach addresses a wide variety of issues including trauma, depression and anxiety. If you’ve lived through a natural disaster, we’re ready to help you process that experience and work with you to find a way to move forward.