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Natural Disasters, Pandemics, and PTSD

Cardinal Innovations Healthcare — June 17, 2020 — 4 min read
Disasters are traumatic events that may cause mental and physical health consequences. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is one of the most commonly studied post-disaster psychiatric disorders. During PTSD Awareness Month, we’ll learn how natural disasters and pandemics may trigger PTSD. We’ll look at the facts and explore resources to treat and prevent PTSD and its symptoms.

What Are the Symptoms of PTSD?

PTSD can occur after a traumatic event such as combat, an assault, or a natural disaster. This includes a pandemic like the one caused by the new coronavirus (COVID-19). These types of events can lead to common PTSD symptoms such as:
  • Being easily startled
  • Feeling tense or “on edge”
  • Having difficulty sleeping
However, those with PTSD can also experience:
  • Re-experiencing the trauma through flashbacks or nightmares
  • Emotional numbness
  • Insomnia
  • Relationship problems
  • Sudden anger
  • Drug and alcohol abuse
  • Self-destructive behavior
  • Avoiding triggers

What is a PTSD Trigger?

PTSD may cause a person to change his or her personal routine to alleviate painful or traumatic memories. This is called avoidance—the act of staying away from a particular item or situation. People do this to avoid their triggers (the item or situation that causes discomfort or a negative emotion related to their trauma).

What Does PTSD Look Like for Children?

Experts recognize that currently there is no way of predicting the long-term effects of the pandemic on children. The COVID-19 crisis is an unprecedented event in the world’s history. Some kids may come out the other end with more resilience. Others may experience long-term trauma. What remains true is that the wellbeing of children and teenagers needs to be a top priority as we navigate today’s challenges.

In general, children can have extreme reactions to trauma. Young children who have experienced trauma can show behaviors such as:
  • Wetting the bed after having learned to use the toilet
  • Forgetting how to talk or being unable to speak
  • Acting out the scary event during playtime
  • Being unusually clingy with a parent or other adult

Can You Get PTSD from a Natural Disaster?

Seeing a community building or family home destroyed by a natural disaster can make it difficult for survivors to move past their grief and feelings of loss. A traumatic event of this magnitude could cause:
  • A fear that the event could happen again
  • Insomnia and loss of appetite
  • Repeated and intrusive memories of the event that cause physical stress reactions (e.g., sweating, rapid heartbeat, breathing difficulties, etc.)
Studies show that PTSD doesn’t only affect people who were involved directly in a natural disaster. PTSD can become a response to an event that scared a person so much that they feel personally vulnerable. These individuals are genuinely afraid of death or injury to themselves, to people close to them, or even to people they see suffering in news coverage.

Can You Get PTSD from a Pandemic?

Research on PTSD after disasters shows that there will be increased rates of PTSD in the weeks, months, and years that follow a pandemic. The current COVID-19 crisis could cause PTSD, or similar symptoms, in people going through the scenarios below:
  • Those who have lost a loved one
  • Survivors of COVID-19 (Some may experience PTSD from the intensive care unit because they can remember thinking they were going to die)
  • People affected economically by COVID-19 shutdowns
  • Frontline workers (Healthcare workers are exposed to death and the threat of dying themselves)
  • Essential workers who have faced the possibility of being exposed to COVID-19

5 Things People Can Do to Cope During a Pandemic

  1. Help others. Find comfort in checking on family, friends, and neighbors.
  2. Practice self-care. Healthy activities that improve your mental health should be part of your daily routine.
  3. Limit news consumption. While the news can keep you informed on important information regarding the pandemic, the 24-hour news cycle and social media access can be overwhelming. Concentrate on viewing positive and hopeful stories.
  4. Know it will be over. Knowing the pandemic will eventually end can give some a sense of comfort.
  5. Get help. Many therapists are offering telehealth services so you can receive treatment from home. Remember that reaching out for help is not a sign of weakness but of strength.

Tips for Self-Care During COVID-19

These are also useful tips to take care of yourself and your mental health during the current crisis:
  • Talk with your doctor about your stress levels and your treatment options
  • Engage in mild physical activity or exercise to help reduce stress
  • Set realistic goals for yourself
  • Break up large tasks into small ones, set some priorities, and do what you can as you can
  • Spend time with other people and confide in a trusted friend or relative
  • Tell others about your triggers, if you have them
  • Expect your symptoms to improve gradually, not immediately
  • Identify and seek out comforting situations, places, and people
Need Mental Health Help Fast?

Call **ASK (star-star-2-7-5) from your cell phone or 1-800-939-5911.

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