The Psychology of the Storm

by Dr. Keith Ablow

Question:

What differentiates the psychological effects that result from a trauma like a hurricane as compared to other types of trauma?


Answer:

There are unique aspects to hurricanes and other natural disasters that distinguish them from other types of trauma. Those who are traumatized may have a sense of having had absolutely no control over the ravages they suffered. It isn't a question of learning self-defense to repel a rapist or getting in great physical shape to ward off another heart attack or talking to a psychiatrist to figure out that you aren't a child anymore at the mercy of violent parents. Hurricanes are overwhelming and victims can have a sense that they remain vulnerable to such calamities no matter what they do.


Having survived a hurricane can also leave someone vulnerable to feeling stress from very common disturbances of weather. High winds and rain that will fall far short of calamities can, nonetheless, trigger a sense of impending doom for years to come.


Question:

What’s the number one psychological issue that arises following a disaster, i.e. Hurricane Katrina or the CA wildfires?

Answer:

The number one psychological issue following a natural disaster are disturbances of mood and anxiety. These range from persistent sadness to true major depression. It is as though one's mind tries to incorporate the enormity of what has befallen him or her, but fails, leaving the person feeling helpless and hopeless. Sleep and appetite can suffer. Lack of concentration is common.


Question:

Does it necessarily take a major natural disaster to cause psychological trauma? What about smaller or weaker hurricanes that still wreak a moderate amount of damage?

Answer:

Certainly, natural disasters have the potential to inflict the most suffering psychologically, but any significant hurricane can cause emotional trauma. One reason is that people who have felt out of control and at risk in their lives before--whether as children who were unsafe or as adults who suddenly lost close friends--can have their feelings of helplessness and hopelessness reawakened by weather disturbances or fires they cannot control. It is the potential for destruction embodied in these events, and not necessarily the absolute level of damage, that makes them potentially toxic.

Question:

What are some of the signs that friends or family should look for in their loved ones after a disaster strikes?


Answer:

Friends and family should be concerned about anyone who becomes isolative, anyone whose self-esteem plummets or anyone who seems unable to sleep, concentrate, eat normally or perform adequately at work. It's important to get these folks help because early intervention by professionals can be so effective.


Question:

How should they cope?

Answer:

I've worked with lots of people who have lived through disasters. I help them focus on what in their lives has not changed. For some, that includes their families remaining intact and their intellect being undiminished and their property (for many) remaining largely intact. I help people shift from seeing themselves as victims to seeing themselves as survivors. It's very different to dwell on how vulnerable you are than to consider how resourceful you are. Also, if people can start thinking about how to be valuable and supportive to those around them, they can often restore themselves to a sense of well-being based on their obvious usefulness to others in need.

Without a doubt, there is also a role here for the judicious use of medications. Antianxiety medicines can not only blunt the trauma of the moment, but insulate people from future complications.

For more from Dr. Keith Ablow, check out his blog at http://health.blogs.foxnews.com

• For more storm extras — Click here!