How Hurricanes & Wildfires May Impact Your Mental Health
The United States has been barraged in recent months by fires, floods and hurricanes. And much like a physical assault, they can take a toll on our collective and individual psyches. Many people may be experiencing unfamiliar, possibly even overwhelming feelings, even if they live hundreds or thousands of miles from a natural disaster.
After Hurricane Sandy destroyed parts of New York and New Jersey, psychologist Deborah Serani wrote about what victims could expect in terms of emotional and physical responses. Her list of potential reactions, which she stated was hardly exhaustive, totaled 70 potential responses. The list started alphabetically with “anger” and “anxiety” and proceeded to “visual flashbacks” and “withdrawals.”
You may recognize these symptoms in yourself. But what if a loved one is suffering from this trauma?
On KUSA’s website, Denver-based psychologist, Dr. Max Wachtel, shared some tips for identifying when loved ones are suffering from hurricane-related anxiety:
“Regardless of the long-term outcome, most people who are dealing with Harvey or Irma will experience a significant level of short-term stress. It is not uncommon to see people break down into tears, to lose motivation to complete tasks, or to be scared to go outside. Some people will have panic attacks. Others will get angry. Most people will experience the physiological effects—an increase in heart rate, high blood pressure, the familiar tingle of an adrenaline-fueled body. This will make people tired quickly. It will make them grouchy. It will make them sad.”
Psychological first aid or crisis counseling, often offered by FEMA, can really help with the short-term mental effects of a natural disaster. According to disorders.org, this usually consists of assessing, educating, supporting, and informing the survivors of a natural disaster. Depending on how much people are struggling, FEMA might also refer people to further services.
There may also be long-term effects to consider, particularly if people who are affected do not seek help in the early days. Counseling immediately after the disaster can go a long way toward preventing long-term psychological damage.
Denver’s Dr. Wachtel advises, “If you see a friend or loved one who is struggling with the aftermath longer than others, or if his or her symptoms are getting worse instead of getting better, it is important to act. Let this person you care about know he/she is not alone and that help is available.”
In the wake of natural disasters, many community mental health centers, states, and the federal government offer special mental health services for disaster victims, sometimes for free or a reduced cost. The National Center for PTSD offers tips at “Help for Survivors in the Aftermath of Disasters and Mass Violence” as does the US Department of Health and Human services .
Dr. Wachtel advises taking the extra step.
“Help your friend get connected with these services. Drive your brother, or sister, or mother, or father to their first appointment,” wrote Dr. Wachtel. “Sit with them as they struggle. Let them know they are not alone.”
NOTE: If you are experiencing emotional distress due to recent natural disasters, call the National Disaster Distress Helpline. This toll-free, multilingual, crisis support service is available 24/7 via telephone (1-800-985-5990) and SMS (text ‘TalkWithUs’ to 66746).