Weathering the storm: focus on your mental health
Disaster after disaster often leads to distress. Following the winter storm in Texas, many re-experienced the traumatic effects of Hurricane Harvey, as well other floods and natural disasters. The added stress of the ongoing pandemic made this increasingly challenging for individuals. A Baylor College of Medicine expert explains the behavioral challenges people endure as a result of natural disasters.
Psychological challenges after disasters can manifest in the form of post-traumatic reaction, which is characterized by different experiences:
- Re-experiencing the event
- Intrusive thoughts
- Considerable anxiety/distress especially when reminded of the event
- Physical symptoms of stress and anxiety (pain, shortness of breath, etc.)
- Fear of recurrences of these types of events
“You see a significant increase in anxiety, which can lead to other problems, including depressive symptoms, somatic complaints like sleep problems, and increased substance abuse,” said Dr. Eric Storch, professor and vice chair of psychology in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor. “People are already struggling with the pandemic but natural disasters on top of this are adding additional fuel to the fire.”
Other cognitive symptoms of post-traumatic stress include dissociated experience, feeling numb or detached, and exhibiting an increased startle response. Behaviorally, people struggle when coming into contact with triggers that remind them of the trauma in question. This becomes challenging with the continual stress of COVID-19.
Individuals suffering from mental health issues already may be particularly vulnerable. Additional risk factors may include economic challenges, their own health, the health of loved ones and loss. They face an increased risk of a worse behavioral health outcome after traumatic events due to compounded stress and disruption in care or the ability to access care.
Those who ordinarily cope well during traumatic events and do not struggle with behavioral issues often deal with stressors in various ways, such as seeking out loved ones, exercising or other forms of self-care. Currently, people are being challenged to confront stressors without the coping tools normally at their disposal due to the risk of COVID-19 exposure.
Storch stresses the importance of seeking professional help for those experiencing distress and impairment. Signs that you should seek help may include significant distress (e.g., sadness, anxiety, not enjoying things you used to enjoy), work and relationship impairment or other problematic behaviors, such as increased substance use. In addition to professional help, people can seek out resources from your community, religious organizations and behavioral health providers.
“When you’re in a situation you can’t change, you might try to change your perception of the situation. Focus on the things you can control. Help other people by providing food or helping repair areas of their home that were damaged. Try to focus on the positive glimmers of hope,” Storch said. “We want to make sure we’re thinking about the lives we want to lead and engaging in healthy lifestyle behaviors, while being realistic about limitations due to COVID-19. On top of that, reaching out for mental health help is important when you need it.”
Children also are prone to issues with behavioral health when it comes to trauma. Parents and guardians must model adaptive behavior, as children are impressionable. While parents are not immune to behavioral health problems, poor coping responses by parents can exacerbate the child’s response. If a child can look at their parent as a pillar of strength, this is more beneficial as opposed to the absence of response. Parents should focus on shifting their perception and upholding confidence. In the middle of a natural disaster, neighbors or loved ones may seek shelter in your home. Display confidence to your children by explaining that things may be chaotic, but that the family has things under control and there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
In addition, be mindful of warning signs for children post-disaster. Symptoms can be physical ones, such as a headache or stomachache without any explanation. Watch for changes and regressions in behavior. If your child begins speaking in a more negative tone, was previously adept in certain domains and has a change in performance or experiences social withdrawal, try to engage them in conversation about it. For additional support, contact a behavioral health provider who is experienced in working with children or contact your child’s pediatrician for additional consultation.
“Find meaning even though the world has shifted. The present circumstances force you to challenge the way you seek out meaning and happiness in life. Focusing on the future and maintaining a hopeful and optimistic perspective are critical in coping with adversity from disasters,” Storch said.