Hurricanes, earthquakes and other natural disasters not only endanger lives and destroy property, but may traumatize survivors. Experiencing a disaster, natural or otherwise, always leaves a lasting impression.
Adults remember what we were doing the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. But those who are traumatized by a disaster not only remember but continue to suffer the psychological impact of the disaster, remaining fearful long after the danger has passed, even leading to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in some cases.
However, not all survivors are traumatized by a natural disaster. Often, it is those who experience intense fear coupled with a sense of helplessness, not knowing what to do as the disaster unfolds, who are traumatized by the event.
The best protection, therefore, from being traumatized by a natural disaster is education. Learning, in advance, what steps to take to protect yourself and your loved ones safeguards you against feeling helpless when a natural disaster occurs, alleviating, in turn, your anxiety.
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It’s impossible to predict exactly when or where a natural disaster may strike; however, recognizing that you are at risk of a particular natural disaster is rather straightforward. If you live near the Pacific coast of the U.S., you should learn earthquake preparedness; if in the Plains states, tornado preparedness; if in Atlantic or Gulf coastal areas, hurricane preparedness.
As Hurricane Irma approached, I repeatedly heard not only about its devastation in the Caribbean but also about the toll on South Florida taken in the past by Andrew and Wilma. Being new to Miami, I naturally became anxious. Anxiety is always future-oriented, and nothing triggers anxiety more than uncertainty.
The solution to my anxiety was clear. I needed the advice of experts so that I would know what to expect and what to do. I learned from them how best to protect my home from damage, what items to secure, and, most importantly, how best to protect my family during the storm. I heeded their advice, temporarily moving inland to avoid the danger of storm surge and staying in a structure built to withstand hurricane-force winds. Taking these steps relieved my uncertainty, helped me to protect my family from harm, but also protected me from being traumatized.
Yet, sometimes, despite your best efforts, you may not be fully prepared for the challenges you will face during a natural disaster. You can never fully protect yourself from a disaster or the trauma it may present.
Ultimately, if you are traumatized by a natural disaster (or any other terrifying event), there are effective remedies available. Trauma-focused psychotherapies, psychiatric medications, and combinations of the two can provide relief from PTSD and other enduring anxiety symptoms suffered by traumatized individuals.
D. Jeffrey Newport, M.D., M.S., MDiv, is professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, and Director of Women’s Reproductive Mental Health at the University of Miami Health System.