- The sudden, painful and traumatic nature of a disaster can leave victims feeling helpless, disoriented, and stunned.
- When presented with a sudden traumatic event, the regions of the brain that normally identify threats become overactive. This can last for years.
- Most trauma survivors benefit from establishing new routines to have something to look forward to during difficult times.
On June 24, 2021, the world arose to the horrific news of the Champlain Towers beachfront apartment building collapse in the small South Florida City of Surfside. This unprecedented event flooded both community residents and the entire nation with sorrow. As the number of the fatal victims now nears 100, their families, friends, survivors, and community members are just beginning to cope with the ensuing emotional toll, grief, and trauma.
Long-term trauma effects following a disaster
When disasters strike, they are typically unexpected and overwhelming. Their sudden, painful and traumatic nature can leave victims feeling helpless, disoriented, stunned, and unable to comprehend the avalanche of distressing information.
When the brain is presented with a sudden and traumatic event, and no mitigation measures are taken, the brain’s regions that normally identify threats become overactive, causing the individual to feel unsafe and have negative expectations about life.
Research on trauma has shown its long-term effects. For example, a neurological study of a group of people who lived in close proximity to the World Trade Center in New York during the attacks of September 11, 2001, found that their brain threat detection systems were highly overactive a full five years after the event took place (Ganzel et al., 2007).
Having stressful hormones, such as cortisol, circulating in the body longer than they are required can lead to significant health issues like cardiovascular problems, high glucose, and immune issues, among others.
Recovery from trauma
The road to recovery from a traumatic event may leave a person experiencing intense feelings of hopelessness and fear. Should those feelings be present for a long time and interfere with the person’s functioning, however, it is important to reach out for professional help.
Some of the common responses seen in those who have been exposed to a disaster include:
- Intense or unpredictable feelings. Some might experience mood swings, irritability, and anxiety, and be easily overwhelmed.
- Changes in thought/behavioral patterns. Individuals might have recurrent and vivid memories of the event. Sometimes these memories surface unexpectedly and often trigger physical reactions such as palpitations and sweating. Also, people may have difficulties concentrating and making decisions.
- Sleeping and eating patterns disruption. Some people may overeat or oversleep, while others may experience a lack of appetite and sleeplessness.
- Sensitivity to environmental factors. They become negatively reactive to loud noises, especially sirens or any other environmental stimulation that recollects memories of the disaster.
- Strained interpersonal relationships. There might be an increase in conflict, such as disagreements with families, or being easily irritated by the behaviors of others. Some individuals may become disengaged from families and friends, and withdraw from social gatherings.
- Stress-related physical symptoms. It is very common after a disaster to have physical symptoms related to stress such as nausea, headaches, and chest pain. Some of these symptoms may require medical attention.
It is difficult to determine how long it may take for most people to recover from the traumatic experience of a disaster, inasmuch as there are myriad factors at play with each individual, such as pre-existing mental health conditions or exposure to trauma, or whether he or she has a personal support system.
However, there are many ways in which an individual can strengthen their emotional well-being and gain a sense of control following a disaster, such as:
- Allowing a period of mourning for losses that may have been endured.
- Allowing the person to heal at their own pace with gentleness as they experience changes in their emotional state.
- Looking to surround themselves with people who care about them or looking for support from others who can empathize with their situation; social support is not only a protective factor for overall good mental health but crucial in recovering from a traumatic experience.
- Gaining a sense of control by communicating their experiences in any form they find comfortable, such as talking to family and friends, writing in a diary, and engaging in creative activities like painting, drawing, photography, or pottery, among others.
- Engaging in healthy behaviors that enhance a person’s ability to cope with traumatic stress, such as eating a well-balanced diet and getting plenty of physical activity and rest. Also, avoiding the use of alcohol or drugs inasmuch as they can be an unhealthy diversion from the journey to recovery.
Most trauma survivors benefit from establishing new routines to have something to look forward to during difficult times.
Research has shown that most people are resilient and, with time, they are able to bounce back from tragedy. Some have even reported personal growth following times of crisis. Others experience an elevated sense of spirituality, as well as more appreciation for family, friends, and life. However, if victims or their family members notice a consistent pattern in feelings of distress or hopelessness that interfere with normal everyday functioning and responsibilities, professional help should be sought as soon as possible.
To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Ganzel, B., Kim, P., Gilmore, H., & Tottenham, N., & Temple, E. (2013). Stress and the healthy adolescent brain: Evidence for the neural embedding of life events. Development and Psychopathology. 25. 879-889. Cambridge University Press.
Ganzel, B., Casey, B.J., Glover, G., Voss, H.U. & Temple, E. (2007). The Aftermath of 9/11: Effect of Intensity and Recency of Trauma on Outcome. American Psychological Association.