But for some people, recovering from the emotional effects of exposure to trauma in these natural disasters may take much longer and require professional help, according to experts from the Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute at UT Southwestern Medical Center.
“Everybody who has been in a disaster is changed permanently in some way. You never forget it,” says Dr. Carol North, a crisis psychiatrist who has studied thousands of survivors of major disasters such as the Oklahoma City bombings and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. However, she adds, “Even though people are permanently changed by going through a disaster, they need not be damaged by their experience.”
Dr. North says it’s important to know the difference between normal distress and psychiatric disorders that may develop after disasters. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) develops on average in about 4 percent of Americans who experience natural disasters, but can occur in as many as a third of people with severe exposures to the most extreme disasters.
Many people may struggle with anxiety, lack of sleep, nightmares or irritability in the months after a traumatic experience. Most will recover within weeks to months, Dr. North says, but people whose symptoms persist or grow worse may have PTSD and face years or even decades of recovery.
Children who show initial signs of distress may recover more quickly if parents are calm and reassuring, says psychiatrist Dr. James Norcross. He also suggests filtering some of the news updates children may receive from television or social media.
“This can be overwhelming and scary for kids,” Dr. Norcross says. “But the good news is that kids are remarkably resilient.”
For people with short-term symptoms, Dr. North suggests a few coping techniques:
- Distraction – engage in absorbing or pleasurable activities such as games, music, movies or social events
- Relaxation – deep breathing, muscle relaxation
- Seeking comfort by being with others, especially family and friends
- Temporary pharmacotherapy targeting anxiety and sleep