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The Trauma That Arises From Natural Disasters

Natural disasters often result in mass cases of PTSD for survivors.

Key points

  • The most immediate reaction to a calamity is shock (known as numbness or denial). Eventually, that gives way to anxiety, guilt, or depression.
  • Trauma can cause physical symptoms such as headaches, nausea, and chest pain.
  • Survivors of natural disaster experiencing PTSD symptoms for more than one month should seek professional help.

The American Psychological Association defines trauma as "an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster." However, Peter Levine (a well-known psychological trauma theorist) characterizes trauma not by the event but by one's reactions to it and symptoms. He explains that "any overwhelming and distressing experience" can cause trauma and that trauma is only recognizable by its symptoms.

There are various types of common traumatic events, all known to lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). One type of trauma results from natural disasters such as earthquakes, tornados or hurricanes, forest fires, floods, volcanic eruptions, landslides, or tsunamis. These types of experiences are particularly insidious because they tend to traumatize large populations of people at once, and can result in epidemics of survivor guilt and other PTSD symptoms.

Like many causes of trauma, natural disasters can be sudden and overwhelming. The most immediate and typical reaction to a calamity is shock, which at first manifests as numbness or denial. Quickly—or eventually—shock can give way to an overemotional state that often includes high levels of anxiety, guilt, or depression.

People might have lost their loved ones or their homes. As a result, they may feel helpless; they may have to live in camps or shelters without support from relatives or friends for extended time periods. However, living with other survivors can also be a time to reconnect, talk about the event, and help to reframe the event. Being able to help another survivor can reduce helplessness, and may start the healing process.

Natural disasters in particular can bring victims a feeling of being betrayed by "their god," which can result in a loss of faith. Making peace with "the divine" might be one step toward healing and gaining faith (which can be crucial to health) back.

According to the American Psychological Association, the following are common symptoms of trauma:

  • Feelings become intense and sometimes are unpredictable. Irritability, mood swings, anxiety, and depression are coming manifestations of this.
  • Flashbacks: repeated and vivid memories of the event that lead to physical reactions such as rapid heartbeat or sweating
  • Confusion or difficulty making decisions
  • Sleep or eating issues
  • Fear that the emotional event will be repeated
  • A change in interpersonal relationships skills, such as an increase in conflict or a more withdrawn and avoidant personality
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches, nausea, and chest pain

It's hard to predict when PTSD will set in with a survivor of a traumatic natural disaster. Some victims seem at first perfectly (or even abnormally) fine, only to be beset with symptoms later on.

In general, survivors of natural disasters are recommended to seek professional guidance if they find themselves unable to regain control of their lives or if they continue to suffer from PTSD symptoms for more than a month.

Additionally, victims do not need to have experienced the disaster firsthand in order to be psychologically affected. For example, someone living in San Francisco with relatives in Haiti at the time of the recent earthquake could have been subjected to countless hours of television coverage, coupled with an inability to get information about their own family. This type of situation can take an emotional impact on someone even from afar.

It's very important with natural disaster trauma that the victim gives himself time to heal and pass through an appropriate mourning process. Only by processing the experience over a realistic period of time is healing possible.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

© Susanne Babbel Ph.D. MFT

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