The Psychological Effects of Natural Disasters

woman consoling her crying childTornado season is well underway, initiated this year by the recent tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, but severe storms and natural disasters can happen at any time. These events leave residents devastated and entire communities completely decimated. Round-the-clock news coverage tends to fade afterward, making it easy to forget about these events altogether. But for the people who survive massive disasters, the consequences last much longer than the news cycle, and extend much deeper than property damage and scrapes.

Shock

In the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, the first reaction is often a combination of shock and denial. Sometimes this can make it challenging to take the necessary steps to begin picking up the pieces—calling insurance, assessing what property was lost, even finding temporary housing. But shock tends to give way to much stronger feelings, which can hit days, weeks, or months after a disaster strikes.

Feelings of Insecurity

Home is a place that most people spend their entire lives believing is a place of safety and refuge. But when a storm comes tearing through your house, this security can go out the window. People who have survived storms may experience nightmares, anxiety, extreme concerns about storm safety, or obsessive preparation to avoid the next disaster. The insecurity can be especially pronounced in children, who may feel constantly unsafe.

Posttraumatic Stress

Extreme stress is common in the aftermath of a storm. But when it persists for months, it can lead to posttraumatic stress (PTSD). People with PTSD may experience flashbacks to the storms, panic attacks, an extreme startle reflex, persistent avoidance of things that remind them of the storm, and anxiety and depression. PTSD can also interfere with a person’s ability to control emotions, leading to angry outbursts or crying spells, for example.

Other Mental Health Conditions

PTSD isn’t the only long-term consequence of surviving a natural disaster. For people already experiencing a mental illness, a traumatic event can make symptoms worse. And for others, a natural disaster can spark depression, extreme stress, generalized anxiety, eating and food issues, obsessive-compulsion, and a host of other problems. Sometimes these issues arise as a result of a person’s attempts to control the environment after a storm takes away control.

Effects on First Responders

Storm survivors aren’t the only people who suffer when a natural disaster hits. People who are on the scene at the time of the storm or who witness the immediate aftermath—including first responders such as police officers and fire fighters as well as the media—can also experience psychological symptoms. They could be haunted by people they were unable to save, by images of injured people, or by the massive nature of the destruction. Some witnesses may even feel guilt that someone else’s home or life was destroyed but theirs wasn’t. The symptoms for witnesses and first responders are often the same, including PTSD, depression, and other mental health conditions, and people who are present in the aftermath of a storm may need as much help and support as the victims.

References:

  1. Hellmich, N. (2013, May 21). Kids who survived tornado face emotional after-effects. USA Today. Retrieved from usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/05/21/psychologist-impact-kids-disasters/2346773/
  2. Pearson, C. (2013, May 21). Oklahoma tornado PTSD: How survivors are coping. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/21/oklahoma-tornado-ptsd_n_3314640.html
  3. Rossi, B. (n.d.). The psychological aftermath of the Oklahoma tornados. WSJ This Morning RSS. Retrieved from blogs.wsj.com/wsjam/2013/05/22/the-psychological-aftermath-of-the-oklahoma-tornados/

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  • Joshua.P

    Joshua.P

    June 26th, 2013 at 10:26 PM

    Just watching such destruction on news makes me nervy.Going through such a thing and having it haunt you must be disastrous.I do not think many of us have the energy to go through all of that.But for the ones that do,stay strong and you are sure to always find support in some of us who are always willing to help you brave souls.

  • olive y

    olive y

    June 27th, 2013 at 3:54 AM

    I tell myself year after year that I won’t let this bother me again, but every spring and summer I practically live on pins and needles.

    During one storm when I was young my family practically lost everything, and even though I have been lucky that this extent has only happened once, there is still this fear that it could strike again.

    I have thought about moving but I love where I live and can’t hardly imagine living anywhere else. I also logically know that no matter where I live disaster could strike; but that still doesn’t stop me from staying worried anytime I hear those storm sirens thinking that this could be it.

  • Josie R

    Josie R

    June 28th, 2013 at 4:14 AM

    @ Olive- this kind of memory of a traumatic event never leaves you, hopefully it will lessen over time but it doesn’t sound like you have been that fortunate.
    I would encourage you to find a support group or just someone to occasionally talk to about this fear because I think that that would make you feel so much better and safer.

  • Mary

    Mary

    May 14th, 2015 at 4:25 AM

    I just got hit by a tornado in Texas. The whole block is a war zone still days later. Noone was hurt or killed and that makes me very grateful. And we still have our trucks not everyone on the block was so lucky. Our roof is damaged and the top 20 feet of our Oak Tree is gone. It happened on Mother’s day which was also our 15th anniversary and this is what has helped me the most I think. I wrote a song about it. Our band is called Lightning Tree ironically. My husband plays guitar I play bass and sing and write. I guess songwriting has always been a way of reorganizing what goes amiss if only in my own mind. I guess it is my Therapy. Here is the song. I guess I am posting it here because I believe art is not finished until it is shared.

    Ever seen an Oak Tree do the twist?
    Ever crouched in the tub? pray your house gets missed?
    Then it hits and you hope that the wall don’t fold
    The back door slamming is the roof gonna hold?
    And then you say I love you babe happy 15
    A Texas Tornado is rough and mean

    As quick as it came it blew away
    And we looked out the back through the pouring rain
    Shock washed over me nothing looked the same
    The Tree saved the house it may die what a shame

    So we walked out front in the thundering storm
    Lightning still flashing all our neighbors in a swarm
    The whole block looked like a bleak war zone
    Like a bomb went off in front of every home
    Everyone wandered in a foggy daze
    The blown down Trees made our straight road a maze

    Then everybody started to clean up the dead end street
    Shingles spiked with nails broken branches watch your feet
    A Tree blocks the way out the cops can not get in
    Chainsaws firing up as the folks check on their kin

    My neighbor hands me water as we go back in the house
    Still feels like a dream still it’s still pouring we are doused
    What a way to spend our 15th anniversary
    Mother’s Day May 10th 2015

  • Mary

    Mary

    May 14th, 2015 at 4:35 AM

    I even said like loud enough for the neighbors to hear that more people die from Lightning than Tornados but that did not seem to matter to anyone. Not even me because I went right out in the rain too. I think that bit about trying to control the environment after a storm you could not control was in effect. I am glad noone got struck by lightning it was surreal. Everyone came out of their houses even though it was still raining and there was still lightning. Like logic got suspended and I even participated after voicing the danger we were all in because a neighbor was cleaning up branches in front of my house and I felt obligated to help. My husband went around and made sure everyone was ok while I was still staring open mouthed at where the top of that huge Tree used to be. It was so surreal to see all those people wandering around with lightning and thunder and all that destruction. It was even weirder to be one of them. Mother’s day tornado Denton Texas is what I put the videos under on youtube. I already had PTSD due to earlier experiences. I think this sort of poked the bear a little bit. I find myself watching the videos of the tornado and the videos I shot after the tornado. I know some people might think that is wrong but it helps me somehow. Like seeing it outside my head helps me stop seeing it so much inside my head.

  • Mary

    Mary

    May 14th, 2015 at 4:43 AM

    I think my brain knows what happened. What a close call it was. I felt the Oak branches hitting the back of my house and had time to think how I would be squashed in half between the wall and the porcelain tub if the Tornado blew the wall in. Then when I saw how different everything looked the shock made everything like a dream. So I think my brain knows what happened but my gut is still confused. I also hurt my eye the next day pulling debris out of the Tree it is better but I got a little eye anxiety? Weird. It made me feel like my husband had a toothpick in his mouth when he went to kiss me goodbye for work I flinched back. I had no reason to believe there was a toothpick in his mouth it was like my eye made me think that it was weird. Like my eye is all flinchy. It got better but at first it really affected my vision and made me think I had ruined one of my eyes for not wearing safety glasses. It is like logic went away for a while I am usually so much more careful than that.

  • Chase

    Chase

    August 6th, 2017 at 3:44 PM

    Good general preparation will reduce one’s anxiety and stress level when confronting a natural disaster. Just by doing volunteer work (thru local civic& religious organizations) one’s confidence becomes stronger.
    Taking a first aid course (RedCross,AmericanHeartAssoc.,BasicLife or Trauma Support course,CDC prep courses,etc.) will empower the average citizen to become an asset rather than a liability during crises.
    CERT (CitizensEmergencyResponseTeam) courses are probably given in your area and are outstanding in quality.Check with your local fire station.
    As a physician, I have found that individuals who have taken a basic first response course of any type adapt more quickly and experience less stress when disaster strikes.
    We each owe it to our community.

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