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Healthy Living: September 12, 2017

By: Dr. David Prescott – Acadia Hospital

Photo courtesy MGN Online Image Id: 353462

Natural Disasters and Those Directly Affected: As the massive cleanup and rebuilding efforts from hurricanes Harvey and Irma begin, the emotional effects of these natural disasters will begin to appear. In the short run, it is normal for people who were directly impacted by a hurricane to experience intense and sometimes unpleasant emotions. These include heightened anxiety, feeling depressed or helpless, and feeling irritable with periodic outbursts of anger.

With adequate physical and emotional support, most people will find that these feelings are temporary. However, one important psychological problem that may develop after a natural disaster is post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Diagnostic criteria for PTSD focus on symptoms of anxiety, fear, and depression that persist for more than 3 months after a traumatic event.

More specifically, the criteria for PTSD include:
· Re-experiencing the event through dreams, intrusive memories, or flashbacks.
· Avoidance symptoms such as refusing to talk about the event, or staying away from the place where you experienced the event.
· Arousal symptoms such as being easily startled, having difficulty sleeping, or having angry outbursts
· Mood symptoms such as persistent negative thoughts about the world or lack of enjoyment in most activities.

Natural Disasters and Those Impacted from Afar: Psychologists have also observed that some people not directly impacted by a natural disaster, nevertheless experience heightened anxiety, depression, and adjustment difficulties after observing the impact of a disaster. Certain people appear to be at heightened risk for emotional distress from indirect exposure to natural disasters.

The reasons for this include:
1. Natural disasters disrupt our belief that the word is basically a predictable and safe place. Watching a natural disaster, particularly in a place where you may have visited or where you have family, disrupts our core belief that the world is for the most part secure. This belief allows us to conduct our daily business without having to constantly feel on guard.

2. Natural disasters lead us to feel helpless. One of the frustrations for people watching a natural disaster from afar is that we don’t know what to do. Inaction in a stressful situation usually leads to feelings of depression and inadequacy.

3. Our own thoughts or the 24 hour news cycle cause us to constantly think about the disaster. Running the same worrisome thought through our mind again and again heightens our level of anxiety and stress. Our body’s stress response system is designed for a short term response – think of feeling a surge of adrenaline when you are in a dangerous situation. However, constantly watching or thinking about a traumatic event overworks our stress management response.

Building Resilience: Minimizing the Emotional Impact of a Natural Disaster:
Steps to manage and work through the emotional impact of a natural disaster include:
1. Sadness is part of it: It is entirely normal to feel sad and discouraged after a traumatic event. Try not to convince yourself that you should not feel that way.

2. Recall times when you have worked through other hardships: Recalling how you have previously worked through difficult times can help you stay resilient as you recover.

3. Talk to others when you are emotionally ready: People who have experience a natural disaster need to tell their own personal story. Often telling another person who experienced the disaster as well is most helpful in the short run.

4. Take a news break: Seeing images or hearing stories of the natural disaster constantly usually causes unnecessary anxiety or discouragement. Being glued to your news source probably makes things worse instead of better.

5. Avoid coping mechanisms which make things worse in the long run: Sometimes our unhealthy short term coping strategies lead to greater problems down the road. Try to avoid excessive smoking, alcohol use, or eating as a way to cope with stress.

6. Active coping is superior to passive coping: Doing nothing usually makes us feel worse. Even if your action is small, it is important to try to think of your coping response as an active one.

American Psychological Association:
National Institute of Mental Health:


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