Four Big Psychological Catastrophes We All Want to Avoid

How traumatic loss shapes us everyday and after natural disasters.

Posted Sep 01, 2017

Keith Jacobs/Flickr
Source: Keith Jacobs/Flickr

Anxiety and depression have been described as two sides of the same coin. In a broad sense, anxiety levels rise when people worry about what could happen. On the other side of the coin, depression spikes after these things really do happen.

Considerable evidence points to the role that genetics plays in mental health. If you have a history of mental illness in your family, just like other medical conditions, this elevates the risk for you.

At the same time, an endless number of environmental or life events can help to trigger intense worry and sadness. These sub-clinical levels of anxiety and depression can evolve over time into mental health issues if unchecked.  So the greatest risk comes from a combination of family history plus negative life events.

Measured in dollars, the physical destruction unleashed by Hurricane Harvey is estimated in the billions. It is too early to tell what the long term damage to life-quality and happiness will be, but I know from personal experience that the people of Houston and the Texas coast are a resilient and spirited group.  Even so, we must all recognize that when bad things happen, there are often psychological consequences.

Here are four categories of major life traumas, or catastrophes, to watch out for.  These can all elicit clinical levels of anxiety and depression, especially under extreme environmental conditions like hurricanes.

Loss of a Loved One

Death, as the saying goes, is a part of life. This, however, offers little reassurance to people struggling with the shock and grief that accompanies death. Losing a loved one at the hands of a disaster can be especially difficult, because the process of grieving often has to be delayed to make sure everyone else is safe and secure.

Loss of Physical Ability

Sudden physical losses due to disasters, accidents, or suicide attempts can be devastating, as serious injuries often are life changing events. Spinal cord injuries and loss of limbs, for example, usually happen quickly and there is simply no way to prepare. Physical deterioration associated with terminal illness, allows for mental preparation, however, there is the added dimension of stress that accumulates during the time period leading up to the loss itself.  

Loss of Sense of Self

Psychologist Erik Erikson was among the first to examine identity formation and loss in different groups including adolescents, soldiers, and older folks. Extreme conditions like war and natural disasters can provide the ecological backdrop leading to questions of identity: “I am surrounded by ghastly events with no end in sight. I am terrified and I don’t even know who I am anymore.” Imagine looking in the mirror and not recognizing who you see?

Loss of the Love of a Loved One

Picture a father who, upon leaving his family, lets his son know before he walks out the door, “I never loved you.” Heavy words for anyone to deal with, especially children. Sadly, these things do occur. Divorces, break-ups, and abandonment are painful enough without adding salt-in-the-wounds vitriol that comes from icy statements like, “You thought I cared for you, but I never did.”  Fortunately, in the midst of natural disasters, this type of loss is less likely than the others. Even so, it represents a major category of loss that is not welcomed at any time.  

Boaz Guttman/Flickr
Source: Boaz Guttman/Flickr

Soldiers coming home from battle since the beginning of organized aggression and warfare have had to deal with one, two, or three of these all at once. It is little wonder that rates of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are dramatically higher for military veterans who have seen combat.  

Regrettably, we can expect something similar in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Add to this catastrophic mix the loss of home, death of pets, and financial instability, and you have a potent combination of trauma that would be grievous for anyone. In addition to the physical rebuilding ahead, many are looking at a long road to psychological recovery.