Natural Disasters - Coping with a Natural Disaster

Medically reviewed by: Ilbey Ucar – PhD
(Psychology)

Last updated date : March 30, 2022

Natural disasters are called so due to their unpredictability and ability to destroy all your life’s earnings. Usually, when we hear the words natural disaster, the first thing that comes to our mind is the number of fatalities, the number of buildings destroyed, or the financial cost. We tend to overlook the toll it may have had on people who just witnessed a massive loss or went through it themselves. Thus, the mental impact of a natural disaster is extremely important for coping with a natural disaster. It may as well be the very first step.

Chapter 1:
What are natural disasters?

Even with all our technology and the inventions that make modern life so much easier than it once was, it takes just one big natural disaster to wipe all that away and remind us that, here on Earth, we’re still at the mercy of nature.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

A man in a black hoodie thinking of and approaching a tornado

There is only so much that we can control as humans. Even though that is about 90%, natural disasters are among the 10% strong enough to eliminate humanity when it is in action. Natural disasters are wreckages that take place purely due to natural causes such as heavy rains. These Disasters include earthquakes, floods, landslides, tsunamis, hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions, storms, etc. However, not all natural disasters take place purely due to natural reasons. In other words, floods can occur when constructions interrupt drainage and water lines, making it impossible for the excess water to pass without overflowing. Disasters are large-scale events most of the time. Disasters are large-scale events most of the time.

How does a natural disaster impact a life? Most of us have been victims of at least one natural disaster, be it a flood or a hurricane. The helplessness, hopelessness, fear, terror, anxiety, and other overwhelming emotions are exactly how a natural disaster impacts one’s mental health. Especially if the carnage includes the victim’s savings, houses, family members, and other valuable belongings.  When one realizes they have just lost everything they have ever worked on earning, the feeling is enough to shake their self-confidence and motivation to come back up. Losing control and not knowing what to do can pull very strong people to rock bottom. Physical harms can tend to, but it may be difficult to come back up from the emotional trauma.

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Chapter 2:
The psychological effects of natural disasters

Natural disasters and mental health are undoubtedly linked in ways that cannot be ignored. These calamities can have a very significant influence on the affected people. These effects include social and economic losses, people, and communities facing mental instability, which may lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Anxiety, and Depression, among other issues within the community.

Again after the heavy downpours have stopped, the water has receded, or the flame has been extinguished, many families are still stressed and anxious. Furthermore, experts anticipate that devastating climate changes will become more common and intense as global temperatures rise, leaving a greater number of individuals at risk for mental health problems. Natural catastrophes may be devastating, wreaking havoc on thousands of citizens and putting a burden on their emotional stability. In a post-trauma setting, increased stress levels may lead to depression and other psychiatric disorders, particularly among people who have lost family and friends and their income. Natural disasters are distressing, and they might result in psychological problems. Natural disasters may have a profound psychological influence on individuals who are directly or indirectly affected by them.

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Chapter 3:
Ways a natural disaster can effect the mental stability

“Growing up, we were taught over and over again what steps to take in case of an approaching tornado. Listen for sirens, go to your basement or cellar, or a closet in the center of your house, duck, and cover, wait it out. We had drills twice a year, every year, in school. Talked about it in class. We talked about it at home. The newscasters reminded us. We went to the basement. We practiced, practiced, practiced.

But we’d never— not once— discussed what to do after.”

Jennifer Brown, Torn Away

You can never see and hide away from a mental disaster. That is why it is traumatic. In addition, no matter the preparation, you can never entirely run away from the damage it causes you.

Below are a few ways how natural disasters can considerably affect a victim’s mindset.

Grief due to natural disasters
Green planet earth is surrounded by images of tornados, tsunamis, floods and forest fire

Grief is one of the most common feelings associated with loss. When it comes to a natural disaster, grief can take place due to various reasons. This can include losing loved ones. The fact that no one had control over an unexpected natural calamity taking away the people you love the most when you least expect it can be a devastating and crushing feeling. Grief can also take place by losing life savings. The things one has worked so hard to acquire being lost in front of their eyes and not having a chance to do anything about it can shake a person’s confidence.  When it comes to losing everything they have, it is very difficult for people to experience deep sadness and get out of it.

Feeling hopeless after natural disasters

Losing or facing a natural disaster can leave people extremely hopeless. People can feel these in different intensities, depending on the situation. For example, watching a flood rise through your home can have you keeping the belongings you have in a place the flood cant reach. You will save your money and savings but you will still have to give up on your couches and other heavy belongings. On the other hand, natural disasters such as watching a volcano erupt and lava come your way, or a tsunami will have you running for your life. It is unlikely that you have the time to stop and gather your belongings. Based on what you lose and the impact of the natural disaster on you, the level of hopelessness varies.

However, one still needs to overcome it to ever get over feeling hopeless and keep the next step towards rebuilding a life. This task can be especially hard if the disaster has cost you irreplaceable things/people or assets that are hard to acquire. Even something insignificant in others’ eyes, such as your beloved pet, can have you hopeless and down on your knees.

Feeling defeated due to natural disasters

One of the hardest feelings to combat is accepting that everything they ever worked for or everyone dear to them is taken away from them.  Thus, the idea that nothing lasts or nobody stays forever can have one feeling completely defeated and not wanting to try again to build their life back. This may have natural disaster victims depressed and isolated. These victims may spend the rest of their lives under someone else’s care with an entirely negative outlook on life.

Guilt after natural disasters

Guilt can find a victim of a natural disaster in many ways too. To name some can be the guilt one feels after a disaster for building their house where it was built. They may notice signs they did not before the natural disasters and may start regretting and feeling guilty for not thinking of them before, which ultimately endangered everything they have. Guilt can also be felt if one person escapes the disaster while the rest of their family suffers from it. The many ‘what if’ s and ‘if I was there…’ questions can have them rotting in sadness and guilt. It is unlikely that the survivors can help anyone when it comes to a vast natural disaster. However, the survivor’s guilt is always going to haunt them.

PTSD by natural disasters

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is very common among those that have come face to face with natural disasters. They tend to be irritatingly over caring, always worried, being scared, taking precautions for the smallest thing, and taking every safety measure they can. This is due to the fact that they have seen the losses and calamities others suffered, and they survived. Or they have suffered undeniable losses themselves.

Adding to that, flashbacks and nightmares are common among those that suffer from PTSD. They may avoid certain routes or activities. For example, facing an avalanche may stop someone from skiing due to PTSD. Those who suffered from floods may build their houses as far away from rivers and possibly on the highest land they find. Too much precaution can never be bad. However, those who are suffering from PTSD are living a quality reduced life due to their constant fear and suffering.

Confusion due to a natural disaster

The lack of clarity can leave those facing natural disasters with a lifetime of suffering. Not knowing what happened and being stuck in intimate details such as the suffering of the family members can have a survivor confused. This confusion and lack of clarity never help them step out of the bad memories of the past and start over.

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Chapter 4:
Signs to recognize mental trauma after a natural disaster

Have you ever faced a natural disaster? Or, do you have a loved one that has been through such a calamity? Here are a few signs of mental trauma you can recognize in someone, or in yourself, who has been through a natural disaster.

  • Worrying excessively
  • Has bad dreams about the event / natural disasters
  • Has flashbacks
  • Depressive signs such as lethargy, overthinking, alienation, etc.
  • Mood swings after natural disasters
  • Trouble being in relationships
  • Commitment issues
  • Addicted to substance/drug or alcohol use
  • Constantly complaining about health problems
  • Clinginess
  • Drifted concentration at all times
  • Less likely to engage in team activities or other normal, fun day-to-day occurrences
  • Does not open up about the disaster
  • Very alert after the natural disasters

If you or your loved one experiences these signs after a natural disaster, there is a chance of a mental trauma that needs to be treated to improve quality of life.

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Chapter 5:
Coping with mental trauma after a natural disaster

Stressed young couple sitting hunched on the ground imagining the tsunami

If there is a will, there is always a way. Here are a few ways on how you can help yourself or a loved one that is suffering from the mental trauma caused by natural disasters

Allowing time

It is unlikely that someone will recover soon after facing a natural disaster. Thus, in the first few months after the calamity, give yourself time to heal. Don’t be alarmed by the immediate PTSD, fear, and flashbacks. It is to be expected after witnessing what you did. If your progress is slow but steady, take it at your own pace. Change can be difficult. No one but you need to decide how fast or slow you choose to recover. However, if there is no progress, not even a slow one, that is when you should consider professional help.

A good support system

Surround yourself or the victim with supportive and uplifting people. A good support system is a vital part of the victim’s progress going through a mental trauma after a natural disaster. There have to be trustworthy people they/you can reach out to when help is necessary. This circle can also act as an important reminder of what is good in the world. A good support system can push victims to get back on their feet and regain their lost confidence.

Expression of feelings and thoughts about the natural disaster

If you are the victim, talk about your feelings. Talk about how you feel, how it made you feel, how scared you were, and what was going on in your mind. You can talk to a trusted friend, family, or a professional clinician such as a trained counsellor to provide you with the psychological help you need. If you know the victim, make sure you are a listening partner whenever they need to open up and vent. It certainly helps to let out the boiling feelings rather than keeping them suppressed. The more one talks about what they went through, the more it starts making sense to them. You can add a daily change when necessary. For example, bit by bit put in a word about moving on or meeting up with a counsellor.

Focus on the quality of life

Do things that you know will improve the quality of your/victims’ life. If big changes are too early, start by drinking a little too much water every day. Or having a fixed time to have meals, or by not skipping meals. Start small. Start somewhere and that will be the first step towards growth and improvement. Not everything will be better or go back to normal overnight. Also, they may never, unless the victim decides to keep a step forwards, no matter how small it is.

Take things slow

Understand that you or the victim is in a major transition period in their/your life. The way you/them face this time can make you/them or break you/them. Thus, don’t make rash decisions. Don’t think it is wise to quit your job and move 4000 miles away to get rid of the pain and memories and start over. It does not work that way. One must deal with trauma, PTSD, and other mental health issues before making major life changes. In other words, you may regret any rash decision you make when you are caught up in the moment or have overwhelming feelings.

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Chapter 6:
How can professional clinicians help?

Counsellors have the knowledge to guide you step by step into improving the quality of your life. A short conversation with you can help them understand how exactly to help you, making things a lot easier and straightforward. Thus, therapy and counselling such as Grief Counseling can benefit your goal of an improved quality lifestyle.