Weather PTSD: The Mental Health Effects of Severe Storms


Healthy Living – September 5, 2017
William Sturrock, MD - Eastern Maine Medical Center
When you think of the storms that have caused havoc in the US over the past decade such as Katrina in 2005, Sandy in 2012 , and now Hurricane Harvey, most of us remember the terrible physical destruction and long-term financial difficulties that survivors face from these weather events.  However, researchers at the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress have published a guideline to aid mental health professionals when dealing with an unseen effect:  the emotional scaring and ongoing challenge of chronic anxiety that many of these survivors face after the ordeal. After the Christmas Tsunami of 2004 that devastated coastal areas of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, researchers found a prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD symptoms affecting 52 percent of those who had lived through that tragedy. 
Here in Maine, many providers noted a real uptick in anxiety after the infamous Ice Storm of ‘98, which left thousands of us without heat, water, and electricity for up to two weeks. For the next several years whenever the weather report suggested the possibility of an ice storm, many people found themselves obsessively checking storm forecasts, asking for early release from work to get home safely, and stocking up with more necessities than usual. Hardware stores noted that pre-storm emergency items were much more likely to be sold-out for subsequent storms, and many of us know friends and neighbors who have never even had to use the generators that they stood in line to buy after that experience.
PTSD is diagnosed when an individual has one or more of the following sets of symptoms:
  • Re-experiencing the trauma through intrusive distressing recollections of the event, flashbacks and nightmares.
  • Emotional numbness and avoidance of places, people and activities that are reminders of the trauma.
  • Increased arousal such as difficulty sleeping and concentrating, feeling jumpy and being easily irritated or angered. 
To make the diagnosis it is necessary to have these symptoms for a least one month beyond the event, though there are some cases that can develop months or even years afterward.
The American Psychological Association has six recommendations that can lessen the anxiety of those who find themselves in the path of a major storm:
  1. Have a basic plan and implement it: this should include having emergency items such as flashlights, easily prepared food, and a radio with batteries ready for use. Also know in advance where shelters are and how you might get there.
  2. Get the facts: Stay informed by using a reliable information source such as the National Weather Service, or state/local government offices. Avoid sites that overplay potential destruction.
  3. Make connections: Reach out and talk with those who matter in your life. Good relationships with family, friends and neighbors can help with the pre-event jitters as well as be a life-line for help if disaster strikes.
  4. Stay healthy: Proper diet, exercise, and rest will help your body manage the stress in a healthier fashion.
  5. Reach out to your children: if they are young, restrict their access to inflammatory media, provide calm reassurance and maintain the daily routines as much as possible.
  6. Maintain a hopeful outlook: Draw on the coping skills that have helped you navigate similar challenges in the past and remember that even the worst storms can bring out the best in people.

Perhaps you already may be part of the 8 percent of the population that has experienced PTSD, from whatever cause. Be aware that our mental health community has a significant toolbox of options that are proven to help.  Certainly most mental health counselors have experience in diagnosing and treating PTSD conditions with effective techniques such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. For those that might benefit from non-habit forming medications such as low-dose Selective Serotonin Inhibitors (SSRI), your family doc or a psychiatric consultant could help you trial some treatment that can complement traditional counseling.
Currently we are in an uneasy weather lull between the recent difficult experience of Harvey and the potential landfall of Irma. Luckily here in Maine we are rarely as affected as those in our southern coastal states by these powerful hurricanes. And though some might point to blizzards as our major weather challenges, most of us would rather ride out the worst winter storm rather than go through the destructive experience of winds, floods and challenge of clean-up that we have seen on our television screens from those living on the Gulf coast of Texas this past week. 
One last thought: often anxiety is best lessened by doing something positive when faced with uncertainty. Even if we cannot drive down a truckload of supplies to Texas, or take our bass boat down to the bayou of Louisiana to help with evacuations, many of us can make a donation to a national resource such as the American Red Cross. If we ever were to find ourselves on the receiving end of a weather- related disaster, I’m sure we would be forever thankful for those who have helped even in this small, but significant way.