Post-Hurricane Stress, Anxiety, Recovery, and PTSD

How hurricanes and natural disasters can cause trauma symptoms and PTSD.

Posted Sep 20, 2017

Stress and PTSD in the Aftermath of Hurricanes

Being a Floridian and a trauma psychologist, each year I write about the impact of hurricanes on mental health in the context of trauma and trauma responses. Likewise, I often educate patients and readers on identifying what trauma is, and it always seems relevant to further this discussion in the wake of hurricanes (and other natural disasters). Most recently in the mainland U.S., Irma caused significant structural damage, power outages, downed trees and wires, flooding, tornadoes, and both water and wind damage to homes and businesses. Currently, the Caribbean islands are facing the wrath of Hurricane Maria and at the time of this article, it is still too early to know the damage she has done. Yesterday, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit Mexico and the death toll is consistently rising. Believe it or not, these are all events that can lead to trauma symptoms (note: this article will mostly focus on hurricanes).

For those who live in hurricane-prone states, you are familiar with the level of frenzy and amount of panic leading up to the arrival of a storm, as well as the residual stress, recovery, and fatigue that remain after the storm. For other types of natural disasters, like earthquakes and tornados, there isn't the same preparation frenzy since these weather events occur with little to no warning, but the aftermath of these weather events are equally, if not more, devastating.

Natural Disasters as a Type of Trauma

Natural disasters are one of the often overlooked, but psychologically (and physically, financially, socially) devastating types of trauma.

Natural disasters can lead to PTSD. Many people relate only combat experiences/war with PTSD, however PTSD can occur from any life, integrity, or body-threatening experience.  

While many survive a hurricane with little to no threat to their physical self or property, there are still many individuals who are deeply impacted by the devastation of these storms; we can all turn on the television and see the destructive aftermath of these weather events. If you have personally been impacted by a hurricane or other weather event in the form of significant home damage or loss, or even the impending fear that you will lose everything, you know all-too-well just how to destructive and devastating these storms can be.

Those with firsthand experience are fully aware of the fear that comes with believing you are about to lose everything you own and consider home, or perhaps even die. You are also familiar with the shock, anger, grief, and fear that is likely to follow from that type of experience. And then there is the reality of living in an area that is subject to the possibility of another hurricane (or earthquake, tornado, etc.). Living in Florida, it is almost guaranteed from the months of June to November that another storm will be around the corner, and receiving news of the next impending storm, whether it is the same storm season or years later, is likely to trigger memories of the previous traumatic experience, as well as fear and anxiety, and concerns about safety.

For those who have previously lost their home and their sense of safety from a storm, and even for those who haven’t, we all turn on the news to learn about the approaching storm and prepare ourselves, our families, and our homes. While the news is attempting to make us aware of the seriousness of the situation, they also succeed in amplifying the perceived threat of even those “mild” tropical storms and putting us all in a frenzy. If you are already struggling with increased fear based on previous experiences with a natural disaster, this is likely to worsen your thoughts and lead to overwhelming fear, nervousness, worry, negative thinking, and possibly depression.

What makes natural disasters unique is that they are just that, natural. This means you have no control over when they happen, where they will go, and what they will destroy. However, there is a difference between recognizing and accepting the lack of human control with natural disasters and living your life in constant fear from June 1st to November 30th.

Strategies for Dealing in the Preparation Phase

There are many ways to ease your nerves as you are watching the news and waiting for the next approaching storm. Some strategies include:

  • From a practical standpoint, be prepared. This means preparing yourself and your family by putting together a hurricane kit.
  • Ensure the safety and physical integrity of your home as much as possible by following recommended storm preparedness guidelines (each state has one, but the State of Florida Hurricane Preparedness Guide is a great tool).
  • Psychologically, if you notice you’re feeling worried or nervous, implement deep breathing practices. Deep breathing is an excellent strategy to quickly reduce nervousness as it can be done anywhere without any special equipment.  (If this is something you are wanting to learn more about, contact a therapist for deep breathing training.)
  • Identify what your specific thoughts (i.e., concerns) are and write them down.
  • Go through each concern and consider whether it is a realistic worry or unlikely to actually happen.
  • If the concerns are realistic, identify what aspects of the situation you have control over and what you can do to perhaps influence the outcome. (*Note: If your concern is about feeling unprepared, go back to the first strategy and make sure you have done what you can to prepare yourself and your family.)
  • If your concerns are unrealistic, or realistic (but something you have little control over, such as the storm heading your way), acknowledge that and move on by redirecting your thoughts and energy elsewhere.
  • If you have done all you can to prepare yourself, your family, and your home, and worry and fear are still at the forefront of your mind, do some things to distract yourself, like watching television (not the news!), reading a book, exercising, cooking, etc.

Psychotherapy to Treat Trauma Reactions

If the storm has recently or long-since passed and you are now left with increased worry and fear when reminded of what happened, or about the possibility or probability of future storms, psychotherapy is highly recommended. Trauma-focused psychotherapy (not medication) is the gold-standard method of treating trauma reactions; it can help you move past what has happened before and be mentally and emotionally prepared to face the next “storm”—both literally and figuratively.