You’ve Survived One Disaster, Don’t Let it Lead to Another

Help for the lingering trauma of surviving a natural disaster

By Tegan Camden, Vice President of Behavioral Health Services for Children’s Home Association of Illinois and a professor of psychology at Illinois Central College

When a natural disaster occurs, the affected community enters a crisis, response, and recovery phase that can last for several years. Homes are rebuilt, roads are repaved, businesses open their doors again, and citizens attempt to return to the state of normalcy they knew before the disaster. This period is typically referred to as the “Reconstruction Phase.” Individuals and the community as a whole begin to assume responsibility for rebuilding their lives. People try to find their “new normal,” while continuing to grieve their losses (Illinois.Gov, 2012).

Part of the process of grieving after a trauma involves letting go of how things “used to be.” After the second anniversary of the event has passed, many individuals are left with a sinking feeling, the thought that they “should be better by now;” however, symptoms associated with the trauma of experiencing a natural disaster still linger.

In the years following a disaster, symptoms of anxiety can still be present years following an event. When individuals do not recognize anxiety symptoms as being associated with a traumatic event, they can often turn to unhealthy coping skills or behavioral patterns to manage their feelings.

Research shows that even several years after a traumatic event, rates of substance abuse, domestic violence, and depression and suicidal ideation are increased. Several studies have found that individuals who have symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are at a 14-59 percent risk of abusing substances. For teenagers and adolescents, the risk increases to 25-76 percent. Recent research also suggests that traumatic stress or PTSD symptoms may make it difficult for teens and adults to stop using, as exposure to reminders of the trauma have been shown to increase cravings for substances (Clark, Lesnick, and Hegedus, 2007).

In addition to being at a higher risk for substance use, survivors of a natural disaster are also at risk for increasing rates of domestic violence. One year after Hurricane Hugo, martial stress was more prevalent in couples who had been severely exposed to the hurricane versus individuals who had minimal exposure. Within six months of Hurricane Andrew, 22 percent of adult residents acknowledged a new conflict with someone in their household. One recent study showed a 46 percent increase in police reports of domestic violence after a disaster. In addition, studies have shown that substantial percentages of disaster victims experience marital stress, new conflicts, and troubled interpersonal relationships (Norris, 2013).

Another concerning symptom that arises in the years following a natural disaster is depressive thinking. Among victims of floods, earthquakes, and hurricanes, there is an increased prevalence of PTSD and depression, which are risk factors for suicidal thinking. According to national data, suicide rates in the four years after floods increase by 13 percent. In the two years after hurricanes, rates increase by 31 percent. In the first year after earthquakes, the rates increase by 62 percent. These increases were found to be similar for both men and women of all age groups (New England Journal of Medicine, 2008). Individuals also experience increasing rates of feelings of hopelessness, loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy, increased anxiety, and increased overall feelings of sadness or thoughts about death.

It is important for citizens of a town that has experienced a disaster to be aware of how anxiety can manifest in the years following the event. While an individual may not experience these symptoms directly, they can help their friend, family member, or loved one, by encouraging them to talk about how they are feeling. If the person is need does not feel comfortable discussing the issue, they can be referred to an online support group, counselor, to a clergy member, or to any person they trust. Know the signs, know the symptoms, and know the numbers to call. While life may not look the same now as it did before, if a person can “yield to hope,” they may find they can be infinitely stronger than they had previously imagined.

Additional Resources:

National Child Traumatic Stress Network

Substance Abuse Mental Health and Services Administration

National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

The Center for Prevention of Abuse

Tegan Camden is the Vice President of Behavioral Health Services for Children’s Home Association of Illinois and a professor of psychology at Illinois Central College. She is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor. Tegan serves on the Spiritual and Emotional Care Subcommittee of the Long Term Recovery Committee and was one of the authors of “Rebuilding Hope After a Natural Disaster: Pathways to Emotional Healing and Recovery.”