by Dr. Mercola

With Texas, Florida and the Caribbean still reeling in the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, the physical destruction is readily apparent. Less easily quantified is the effect of natural disasters like hurricanes on the human psyche. Not surprisingly, a study on the impact of Hurricane Sandy, which hit the East Coast of the U.S. in October 2012, revealed that experiencing personal and property damage during the storm increased the risk of long-term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.1

However, as the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) points out, natural disasters affect mental health not just during the event but before and after as well. “The toll and trauma that stems from disasters can contribute to stress and anxiety, acute stress reaction and ability to self-regulate — and for some, posttraumatic stress disorder,” they note.2

If it seems like natural disasters are becoming more frequent, it’s not in your head. The number of events increased threefold from 1980 to 1989 to 2000 to 2009.3 This makes it more important than ever to be aware of the psychological toll that natural disasters exert, as well as ways to help circumvent it and heal from the trauma.

Anyone Can Be Mentally Harmed by Natural Disaster, but Children May Be Most at Risk

People may have a wide range of reactions to experiencing a natural disaster, from stress and fear to depression and feelings of insecurity. Among those with preexisting mental health problems, natural disaster is likely to make them worse.

Meanwhile, some people who had no preexisting problems may develop mental issues after the storm. Baylor College of Medicine professor and executive vice chair for community psychiatry told MedicalXpress, however, that children in particular should be closely monitored following a natural disaster.

“The way kids react in these situations is very different from adults,” he said. “Families need to watch out for the warning signs that kids may not be coping well with the events they’ve experienced.”4 Warning signs may include isolating themselves or hiding in rooms, changes in eating habits or having fewer social interactions. A child may also have trouble getting over the loss of a favorite item like a blanket or toy.

Among school-age kids, meanwhile, the ramifications can extend into their ability to succeed in school, due to both practical considerations and psychological consequences. In 2008, for instance, research found exposure to Hurricane Katrina increased aggressive behavior in high school students via PTSD and poorly regulated emotion.5

The extent of PTSD and other mental health symptoms in youth exposed to traumatic events vary widely, however, with PTSD increasing in those exposed to both a hurricane and community violence and decreasing in those with more social support from their peers.6

Speaking with The Atlantic, Joy Osofsky, a professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at Louisiana State University, also noted that the severity of a natural disaster’s impact on children is associated with the stability of their broader environment.7 In particular, lack of stability and family chaos may harm the child’s academic performance,8 whereas getting back to a routine can be therapeutic.

“For instance, children who may have had a close relative relocate following the storm, or whose families experienced outsized economic strain,” The Atlantic reported, “were likely to show greater signs of stress than those who had more stability. In the midst of such upheaval, Osofsky said, schools had the opportunity to be a source of stability.”

Natural Disaster Coping Strategies

One of the best ways to alleviate anxiety if a natural disaster is approaching is to be prepared. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) recommends creating a plan ahead of time,9 including knowing where you’ll go if you need to evacuate and compiling a preparedness kit with basic supplies, such as nonperishable food, water, a flashlight, a battery-operated radio and extra batteries.

In addition, stay informed on the latest weather updates and warnings to help you feel you have some control over the situation. At the same time, accept that you cannot control the path of the storm and can only take the best steps to be prepared and take precautionary measures based on the latest information. The American Psychological Association (APA) further recommends emotionally preparing for a hurricane by:10

  • Having a plan and implementing it
  • Getting the facts to determine your risk so you can take reasonable actions
  • Making connections with family members and friends as an additional source of support
  • Staying healthy via proper diet, exercise and rest, as a healthy mind and body will help you to make the best decisions and better deal with any oncoming threat
  • Maintaining a hopeful outlook to help you through the storm and its aftermath

After a natural disaster strikes, many find that doing something constructive and positive helps them to cope. You may consider donating blood, volunteering or cleaning up brush in your area to give you a sense of purpose and hope. Many experts also recommend getting back to your normal routine as soon as possible, and avoiding exposure to news stories if they contribute to your stress and anxiety. Meanwhile, take care of your body — eat well, sleep and exercise — to keep up your physical and mental stamina.11

Use Relaxation Strategies to Keep Calm

If you’re riding out a storm or trying to calm yourself as a hurricane approaches, relaxation techniques can be invaluable, and simple strategies, like breath work, can actually increase your resilience to stress. In the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, researchers reviewed data showing controlled breathing, or pranayama as it’s known in the practice of yoga, may be beneficial in the treatment of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and for victims of mass disasters.

“By inducing stress resilience, breath work enables us to rapidly and compassionately relieve many forms of suffering,” the researchers concluded.12 One of the most effective breathing exercises to reduce stress and anxiety comes from the Buteyko Breathing Method, which involves making a conscious effort to breathe through your nose instead of your mouth. As such, it focuses on small breaths taken through your nose, as follows:

  1. Take a small breath into your nose, followed by a small breath out
  2. Then hold your nose for five seconds in order to hold your breath, and then release your nose to resume breathing
  3. Breathe normally for 10 seconds
  4. Repeat the sequence

Other methods to help you invoke your body’s relaxation response and counter the effects of stress include meditation, guided imagery and the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT). Research has shown that EFT significantly increases positive emotions, such as hope and enjoyment, and decreases negative emotional states, including anxiety.13

Manage Your Stress Before, During and After the Storm

Stress due to a natural disaster can be long-lasting, but your resiliency to the stress can make all the difference in how well you’re able to cope and how quickly you’re able to bounce back. For starters, choose healthy foods known to support a positive mood. Among them:

Green leafy vegetables Organic, free-range turkey
Fermented foods Wild-caught Alaskan salmon, sardines and anchovies
Blueberries Dark chocolate, in moderation
Avocado

A daily dose of sunshine may also help to stabilize your mood. Serotonin, the brain hormone associated with mood elevation, rises with exposure to bright light and falls with decreased sun exposure. In 2006, scientists evaluated the effects of vitamin D on the mental health of 80 elderly patients and found those with the lowest levels of vitamin D were 11 times more prone to be depressed than those who received healthy doses.14 Low vitamin D levels are also associated with an increased risk of panic disorders.15

If you find your mind is running wild with what-ifs and worst-case scenarios, try to switch it around for the better. Teri Harbour, a stress management instructor at Frederick Community College near Washington, D.C., told news outlet WTOP, “We so often use our imagination to worry and to fear. Let’s flip that around to use it to envision the best and to seek out the positive. We’re going to feel better if we’re doing that. We’re going to have less stress; we’re going to be fortified against the stress that’s coming at us.”16

She also recommends not only detaching from the situation if you find you’re overly focused on the stressor, but also detaching from screens. “With the digital age, we are living a very fast-paced life,” she says, “and I think stress affects everyone more today than ever before because things are so instant with technology. It can be very overwhelming and we sometimes don’t even realize how stressful it is.”17

Sources of Stress in America Are Changing

Stress in America is nothing new, and the top stressors have long been money, work and the economy. In APA’s 2017 Stress in America report, however, an increasing number of Americans cited stress not only related to the political climate but also to their personal safety.18 Thirty-four percent of Americans said their personal safety was a very or somewhat significant source of stress — the highest percentage since 2008. Fifty-nine percent regard acts of terrorism as a significant source of stress, as well.

A survey of Americans’ top fears conducted by Chapman University in 2016 also revealed that nearly one-quarter of Americans are very afraid of devastating natural disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes and floods.19 If you need immediate counseling to help you deal with the psychological effects of a hurricane (or any disaster situation) call the Disaster Distress Helpline 1-800-985-5990, which is run by SAMHSA and operates 24/7, 365 days a year. You can also text TalkWithUs to 66746 to connect with a crisis counselor.

For more long-term help if you’re having trouble moving past your anxiety and fear, or if you think you may have PTSD, professional counseling may be appropriate. Virtually everyone, however, can benefit from SAMHSA’s tips for coping with a natural disaster, which include, as mentioned, taking care of yourself with a healthy diet, proper sleep and exercise, and avoiding the use of drugs and alcohol. In addition, put off making any major life decisions until after you’ve had time to recover from the disaster.

They, too, recommend limiting your exposure to news and maintaining your regular routine, but do be gentle with yourself and allow time for recovery. “It is important that people try to accept whatever reactions they have related to the disaster,” SAMHSA notes. “Take every day one at a time and focus on taking care of your own disaster-related needs and those of your family.”20

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