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Guest Commentary: Weather-related PTSD a growing concern months after Hurricane Ian

By Elizabeth Dosoretz - | Jun 1, 2023

Elizabeth Dosoretz

Seven months after Hurricane Ian made landfall in Florida, and with the 2023 hurricane season looming, we reflect on the mental health impacts for those still recovering from the devastation of fall 2022.

If you’ve lived through a hurricane — especially one with the intensity of Hurricane Ian — it’s common to feel traumatized, fearful and vulnerable in its aftermath. Even a half-year after the storm, many survivors are still working to process and move beyond their traumatic experiences.

It’s common to experience a range of intense emotions, from anxiety to depression for days, weeks or even months after the storm has passed. You may also experience a numbing effect, feelings of shock and a dissociation from reality.

In some cases, your natural post-traumatic stress response from a weather-related incident may develop into a more serious mental health condition called post-traumatic stress disorder.

What is PTSD?

PTSD is a mental health condition that can develop after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, such as a natural disaster. PTSD causes people to feel intense fear, helplessness or engage in avoidance behaviors, like staying away from certain places.

Not everyone who experiences trauma develops PTSD. And despite the common misconception, the diagnosis isn’t limited to combat veterans, either.

Common symptoms of PTSD can include flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, depression or feeling numb or “on edge.” These disruptions can negatively impact social interactions, work, school or other areas of daily life.

Factors contributing to PTSD after a Hurricane

People who experience particularly traumatic events as a result of a hurricane, such as being trapped or injured, or suffering the loss of a loved one or pet, may be at higher risk for developing PTSD.

It is common for individuals with PTSD to have other mental health conditions as well. Depression, anxiety and substance use disorders are among the most common co-occurring conditions.

Socioeconomic issues can also play a significant role in the development and management of PTSD after a hurricane. People who are already struggling with poverty, homelessness, or other socioeconomic issues may be at higher risk for experiencing more severe symptoms of PTSD after a hurricane. These issues can make it more difficult for individuals to prepare for and respond to a hurricane.

Individuals whose home and communities were damaged or destroyed can experience added distress and prolonged mental health symptoms. A damaged or non-repairable home can create additional economic stress and uncertainty that can exacerbate post-traumatic stress. Hopelessness, stress and even trouble eating is common.

People who have lost loved ones or beloved family pets as a result of a disaster live with intense feelings of grief and can also experience survivor’s guilt.

Treating weather-related PTSD

There are several evidence-based treatment modalities available to help with healing after a hurricane. Individualized treatment plans will often include individual or group therapy. Some people may need medication to help with some of the symptoms of PTSD.

Talk therapy can be beneficial for individuals with PTSD after a hurricane. Whether a person works 1:1 with a therapist or in a group, both options provide a safe and supportive environment for people to share their experiences following a traumatic event. It also allows people to connect with others who have gone through similar experiences and learn healthy coping strategies from one another.

Medication can also be used to treat PTSD symptoms, including antidepressants, anti-anxiety medication and sleep aids. These medications can help manage the symptoms of PTSD, but they may also have side effects and should only be taken under the supervision of a health care professional following a psychiatric care plan.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is also a common tool used to treat PTSD that helps people identify and change negative thought patterns that may contribute to PTSD symptoms. It can also teach coping strategies to effectively manage symptoms, such as relaxation techniques, exposure therapy and mindfulness.

Steps for managing stress after a hurricane

Especially with the 2023 hurricane season quickly approaching, it is important for people who have experienced a hurricane and are feeling ongoing stress or experiencing symptoms of PTSD to seek professional help as soon as possible.

There are also several steps to take to manage symptoms, including:

• Stay connected with others: Building and maintaining social connections can help people feel supported and connected, which may help reduce negative symptoms.

• Practicing self-care: Engaging in activities that bring joy and relaxation, such as exercise, meditation and hobbies, can help reduce symptoms and improve overall well-being.

• Limiting exposure to triggers: Limiting exposure to news and social media related to the hurricane, as well as avoiding triggers that can cause flashbacks or nightmares, can help manage symptoms.

• Seeking support from community resources: Community resources such as disaster relief organizations and support groups can provide a range of services to people impacted by a hurricane or natural disaster.

Help and support is available

Experiencing post-traumatic stress after a hurricane or other severe weather event is a normal reaction to witnessing a traumatic situation. The symptoms can become debilitating, but they can also be effectively managed with professional help and self-care strategies.

With the right support and resources, you can overcome the symptoms of post-traumatic stress and regain control over your life.

–Elizabeth Dosoretz, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker and mother of three. Her personal journey through the challenges of postpartum depression inspired her to establish Elite DNA Behavioral Health in 2013.