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Easing Emotional Distress 
After a Natural Disaster

August 24, 2020

The news is regularly filled with stories of natural disasters across our nation and beyond—from hurricanes and floods to earthquakes and wildfires. And many people are finding that the emotional impact of those events can persist long after the weather has calmed. As their process of recovery begins to take shape, some survivors will rebound more quickly than others.

Initial emotions of sadness, anger, fear, and shock fade quickly for some. For others, they can give way to a longer-lasting impact. As the rebuilding process grinds on, people may find themselves struggling to cope and discover the resilience to begin again. Add to that the profound feelings of loss or heartbreak over treasured family photos, mementos, and heirlooms, and personal items that can’t be replaced.

Such feelings are natural and take time to work through. It’s important to stay in contact and talk with others and to not have any expectations about the speed or course everyone is different.

When to reach out

A small percentage of individuals who have been exposed to a natural disaster may develop a trauma- or stressor-related disorder. Severe or overwhelming symptoms can begin in the days and weeks after the disaster. If symptoms persist, they may indicate a stress disorder. It’s wise to get help before they develop into a chronic problem.

In the extreme, these problems can develop into PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD can be a debilitating physical and psychological condition. It can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal that causes or threatens grave physical harm. After major stress, individuals might experience flashbacks, nightmares, or hallucinations, which can be triggered by people, objects, or situations that stimulate memories of the traumatic event. People with the condition may be easily startled and constantly on the alert for danger. Depression and substance abuse may also be part of PTSD.

To help prevent PTSD from developing, consider speaking with a licensed mental health professional. He or she can guide you through the healing process. Treatment for trauma- and stressor-related disorders may include psychotherapy, such as cognitive and behavioral therapies, and in some cases, antidepressants or other drug therapy.

If you experience the following reactions or your symptoms last longer than two to four weeks and interfere with your ability to function in daily life, you should consider seeking help:

  • Crying spells, irritability, angry outbursts
  • Sleep disturbances, oversleeping
  • Apathy
  • Lack of energy
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling guilty, helpless, or hopeless
  • A loss of or increase in appetite
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Intrusive memories about the disaster
  • Headaches, stomach upset
  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs

You may feel uncomfortable asking for help. Many people, especially older adults, are reluctant to reach out. It’s important to acknowledge that emotional issues require the same care and attention you’d give to physical ones. Having trouble coping with the emotional aftermath of a disaster doesn’t mean you’re weak. Taking steps to recover emotionally is just as important as rebuilding a home or healing from a physical injury. You might think of it as a temporary support, much like a cast for a broken bone or physical therapy after a muscle injury.

Ask your primary care doctor for a referral to a psychologist, psychiatrist, or other mental health professional. He or she may be able to recommend a counselor who deals with post-disaster stress. You can also contact your health insurance carrier and ask for names of providers near you who accept your insurance plan. If you have Medicare, visit www.medicare.gov/physiciancompare to see a list of local providers.