How severe storms impact your mental health

Mental Health

by Grace Glausier

Jul 18, 2019

Growing up as a little girl in Puerto Rico, I naively associated hurricanes with happiness: no electricity and no running water for days in a row meant no school, fun outside with the neighbors and candlelit board games. Until I watched my beautiful island get destroyed by hurricane Maria on September 20, 2017.

Extreme weather events such as tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, extreme heat and wildfires are occurring at a higher rate — and they can impact our mental health. 

Even when you are not directly impacted, experiencing or witnessing weather disasters can disrupt your life in many ways, including physical and mental health struggles such as increased levels of anxiety, depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Extreme weather events such as tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, extreme heat and wildfires are occurring at a higher rate — and they can impact our mental health. 

The American Psychiatric Association defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster.” But any overwhelming or distressing experience can cause trauma and stress-related symptoms.

Stressful events activate the body’s “fight or flight” response, releasing adrenaline and stress hormones like cortisol throughout your body. Almost everyone exposed to a natural disaster will experience some of these physiological and psychological effects. It’s simply part of being human.

The threat of extreme weather and natural disasters can be a significant psychological and emotional stressor. Individuals and communities are affected both by direct experience of local events and by exposure to information regarding the situation and its effects. The need for mental health services increases in the aftermath of a natural disaster. At the same time, there is often a disruption in services or a decrease in the availability of accessibility of services. 

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to help yourself and those around you rebuild, cope and move on after a storm or weather-related trauma.

Rebuilding your life after a storm

When you are significantly impacted by a natural disaster, rebuilding can be exhausting. Even after the catastrophe passes, many people continue to feel high levels of stress and anxiety. Be aware that many people also experience physical symptoms like headaches, muscle tension, insomnia, changes in concentration and nausea for days or weeks after the events. 

If you have experienced a storm, try these coping mechanisms as you start to rebuild:

  • Continue practicing self-care and participating in activities you enjoy.
  • Do something positive. Volunteer, donate, prepare care packages — helping others can also help you regain a sense of control and normalcy.
  • Get back to your usual routine as soon as possible, but start with one thing at a time if needed. 
  • Support your friends and family. Talk to others and offer your support.
  • These uncertain times of stress can put you at a greater risk for abusing drugs and alcohol, so avoid them. 

Contact your primary care physician or a mental health provider if your symptoms do not improve or if they significantly interfere with your activities and daily routine.

Related: Life after the storm

How to recognize PTSD after a severe storm

Some people develop symptoms of PTSD soon after a traumatic event, while some find that symptoms begin appearing later, even months after the fact. Some symptoms to be aware of include: 

  • Re-experiencing the trauma through distressing recollections of the events, flashbacks and nightmares
  • Emotional numbness
  • Avoidance of places, people and activities that are reminders of the trauma
  • Increased arousal such as difficulty sleeping and concentrating
  • Feeling jumpy
  • Being easily irritated and angered

If you experience the above symptoms, seek help as a combination of medications and/or psychotherapy can significantly alleviate your symptoms. Don’t be embarrassed or afraid to bring up what you’ve been feeling — you are not alone in experiencing PTSD, and there is help available for you.

7 ways to mentally prepare for the next storm

How do we manage anxiety levels in the face of a natural disaster and their threats? Once you have experienced or witnessed a severe storm, you may find yourself worried or anxious. It’s natural to be afraid, but there are some things you can do to ease your mind and be prepared should another severe storm hit.

Here are some things you can do:

  • Recognize your emotions as normal and expected. 
  • Accept what you cannot control.
  • Create a plan: Prepare “survival kits” and have an evacuation plan if needed. Feeling prepared will give you a sense of control that can also help manage your levels of anxiety.
  • Stay informed of the latest information and pay attention to any instructions given by your local police. Do not ignore requests to “take shelter” or “evacuate the area.”
  • Recognize that you are not alone in feeling afraid and that it is helpful to talk about it and share your emotions. 
  • Practice self-care and recharge your “emotional batteries” with activities that improve your sense of self and that are calming. Exercising, meditating, reading and talking to a friend are only a few of many. Find what works for you.
  • Be particularly calm and supportive to kids. They need to hear what is going on from you as well. Help them express their emotions and answer their questions in ways that they can understand and get reassured.

While it’s natural to be afraid of the unknown, you shouldn’t live in fear of the next storm. Talk to your doctor if you need help coping with weather-related PTSD or anxiety.

About the Author

Grace Glausier is the manager of digital content strategy for Baylor Scott and White Health. A graduate of Baylor University, she is passionate about connecting people through powerful stories and empowering individuals toward better health.

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