Mental health reactions after disaster, like the recent hurricanes and earthquakes look very much like trauma reactions.
Disasters can cause a full range of mental, emotional, and physical reactions. You may also react to problems that occur after the event, as well as to triggers or reminders of the trauma.
Disasters affect people who experience and respond to the event. Natural and technological disasters impact survivors, bereaved family members, witnesses to the event, and friends of those involved. Rescue workers, emergency medical and mental health care providers, and volunteers are also affected. Disasters can also impact members of the media, as well as citizens of the community, the country, and the world.
Disasters can cause a number of different stress reactions in those affected. The steps that can be taken for self-care after disasters to manage coping are also useful for those who are witness to a terrorist act.
People respond to traumatic events in a number of ways. They may feel concern, anger, fear, or helplessness. These are all typical responses to a traumatic event.
In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, almost everyone will find themselves unable to stop thinking about what happened.
These are called intrusion or re-experiencing symptoms. They will also exhibit high levels of arousal. For most, fear, anxiety, re-experiencing, efforts to avoid reminders, and arousal symptoms, if present, will gradually decrease over time. The expected psychological outcome is recovery, not psychopathology.
What are common mental health reactions in the wake of disaster?
Most disaster survivors (including children and disaster rescue or relief workers) experience common stress reactions after a traumatic event. These reactions may last for several days or even a few weeks and may include:
Emotional Reactions: shock, fear, grief, anger, guilt, shame, feeling helpless, feeling numb, sadness
Cognitive reactions: confusion, indecisiveness, worry, shortened attention span, trouble concentrating
Physical reactions: tension, fatigue, edginess, insomnia, bodily aches pain, startling easily, racing heartbeat, nausea, change in appetite, change in sex drive
Interpersonal reactions: distrust, conflict, withdrawal, work or school problems, irritability, loss of intimacy, feeling rejected or abandoned.
Because mental health reactions and trauma are so pervasive after a major disaster, it can be difficult to know when a stress reaction is more severe and may require clinical intervention. The following are severe stress symptoms that indicate increased risk for acute stress disorder or post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Even more important than the symptoms listed below is the individual’s functional capacity. Symptomatic individuals who can continue to function affectively at work or at home are at much lower risk for developing psychiatric problems that those who are functionally incapacitated.
Severe Reactions After Disaster:
Intrusive re-experiencing: terrifying memories, nightmares, or flashbacks
Extreme emotional numbing: completely unable to feel emotion, as if empty
Extreme attempts to avoid disturbing memories: such as through substance abuse
Hyperarousal: panic attacks, rage, extreme irritability, intense agitation, violence
Severe anxiety: debilitating worry, extreme helplessness, compulsions or obsessions
Severe depression: loss of the ability to feel hope, pleasure, or interest; feeling worthless, suicidal ideation or intent.
Dissociation: fragmented thoughts, spaced out, unaware of surroundings, amnesia
Which individuals are at risk for severe stress responses?
Some individuals have a higher than typical risk for severe stress symptoms and lasting PTSD.
Risk Factors for Severe Reactions:
Trauma and Stress: Severe exposure to the disaster, especially injury, threat to life, and extreme loss. Living in a highly disrupted or traumatized community. High secondary stress.
Survivor Characteristics: Female gender, if an adult survivor ages 40-60, being an ethnic minority, low socioeconomic status, and predisaster psychiatric history.
Family Context: In an adult survivor, having children in the home. If female, the lack of presence of a spouse. If a child, the presence of parental distress. A significantly distressed family member, interpersonal conflict or lack of support at home.
Resource Context: Lacking belief in one’s ability to cope, few, weak or deteriorating social resources.
If you have any questions, concerns, comments, please reach out to me. I am here for you for consultation. On my Website Contact page, You will find a Code for FREE 15-minute consultation. I have specialized in the assessment and treatment of Trauma for 20-years: Single Event Trauma, Repeat Event Trauma, Acute Stress Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Battered Women’s Syndrome, Narcissistic Personality Disorder Victimization Trauma.
With Love and Light,
Shawna M. Freshwater, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist, NeuroPsychologist, and Holistic Healer.