How Are Natural Disasters Fueling Mental Health Crises?

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson
Updated November 30, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

You may have noticed an increase in the frequency and severity of natural disasters in the last couple of decades. Research shows that the increase is significant. Natural disasters can lead to severe injuries, death, loss of homes, and significant impact on infrastructure. However, research shows that natural disasters can also affect people’s mental health in several ways.

How Do Natural Disasters Impact Mental Health?

Natural disasters can greatly affect a person’s emotional and behavioral health. The impacts can happen before, during, and after the experience and may last for years.

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Has Your Life Been Affected By A Natural Disaster?

After a natural disaster strikes, it can cause high levels of stress and anxiety. While some will only have temporary stress during an event, others may have psychological effects that linger and affect their ability to function.

A natural disaster can disrupt a person’s entire life and impede them from returning to work. They may even have to move away from the place they call home. These events can disrupt support systems and relationships, cause financial burdens, and tear down the communities that the affected individuals worked hard to build.

It can be traumatic to lose a home, pets, and loved ones after a natural disaster. There may be a grieving period immediately following a disaster when survivors have to rebuild their life. This can increase stress even more and make it difficult to process events during and after the natural disaster.

Some people may continue to feel afraid even when the risks have decreased. Some may develop survivor’s guilt or go into shock and confusion. They may develop irrational fears of similar instances happening in the future.

Some people may experience nightmares or excessive worry after a natural disaster. Others may have panic attacks that lead to physical symptoms like difficulty breathing, sweating, and increased heart rate. The stress after a natural disaster could also increase the risk of developing a problem with substance use to cope with distressing emotions.

Therapy For Mental Health Conditions Triggered By Natural Disasters

In addition to individual stressors, essential services can be disrupted by a natural disaster and make it difficult or impossible to seek medical care. This includes mental healthcare. Research shows that a severe natural disaster can cause post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

However, therapy can be an effective way to treat PTSD and other mental health conditions that natural disasters often trigger. Research shows that several different kinds of therapy may be beneficial.

For example, trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can examine a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. This may help you explore thought patterns to identify unhelpful thoughts and replace them with positive thoughts, which may lead to positive emotions and behaviors.

One specific form of CBT called prolonged exposure therapy involves methods to avoid anxiety and other negative feelings related to triggers. As a person becomes exposed to a trigger with the therapist, they may experience less stress and learn to respond in a way that leads to better outcomes. 

Since natural disasters can cause PTSD, other types of therapy for this condition may be more beneficial. For example, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, or EMDR, is sometimes used for people who have PTSD. This type of therapy typically involves stimulation of eye movements by a therapist while an individual recalls a traumatic event. EMDR may help to replace negative reactions to the memories tied to the traumatic event with more positive reactions. 

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Risk Factors For Mental Health Conditions Triggered By Natural Disasters

While anyone can develop mental health concerns due to a natural disaster, some people may be more at risk. For example, children may be more vulnerable to stress and other negative reactions caused by a traumatic experience. Mental health challenges can sometimes lead to behavioral and academic problems.

Also, individuals who already have a mental illness or who previously survived a traumatic experience may also be more at risk of PTSD. Even if they have not recently been experiencing mental health concerns, they may be more likely to develop a new condition.

Also, first responders and other recovery workers may also be at risk. They can develop PTSD and other disorders after working to help others recover from a natural disaster.

There are several other possible risk factors. For example, the severity of the disaster and how it affects a person’s life can be significant factors that contribute to mental health challenges. Also, a person’s family, age, support system, and socioeconomic status may also play a role in their response to a natural disaster.

Things You Can Do

There are some steps you can take to help yourself and your loved ones cope with the aftermath of a natural disaster.

  1. Try to set up a schedule. After a natural disaster, life may be so disrupted that it can be difficult to stay on schedule. It may help to set up a schedule to follow. You might start with one aspect of life, such as setting regular mealtimes. The structure of a routine may help you feel more in control. It may also help you not forget to eat.
  2. Do something you enjoy. Even if it is only for an hour, it may be beneficial to engage in something you enjoy. Whether it is going for a walk or just reading a book, you might try to participate in these types of activities. It may get your mind off of the negative experience and on to more enjoyable and positive things.
  3. Practice mindfulness. Research shows that mindfulness can have a significant effect on anxiety and stress. Even though life after a natural disaster may be completely disrupted, it may help to take a few minutes each day to practice mindfulness. This could be through meditation, a breathing exercise, or just a walk where you concentrate on your awareness. Mindfulness typically involves watching your thoughts come and go without judgment. This may allow you to identify negative or illogical thought processes, which may help you to not identify with them.
  4. Try not to overwhelm yourself. Despite your efforts to get your life back to normal, taking on too much or working on too many things may increase stress. It also might prevent you from grieving the loss of your home, community, relationships, job, or loved ones. It may help to give yourself some time to process everything as you gradually work to rebuild.
  5. Reach out to loved ones. It can be difficult to stay resilient and optimistic following a traumatic experience. One thing that might help is reaching out to your social support system. While it may be difficult to see people locally, you can try to contact friends and family by phone or seek out an online community of people that a natural disaster has impacted. Research indicates that social support is an important factor for well-being after a natural disaster. Even if there is just one person you can talk to, it may help you during recovery from a natural disaster.
  6. Help others. This may apply if you were not affected as significantly as your neighbors and have the time or resources to lend a hand. Helping others may give you a sense of control and meaning and help you heal mentally and emotionally.

Seeking Help After A Natural Disaster

Crisis counselors are often brought into a disaster area to help, and it may be a good idea to take advantage of that opportunity should it arise. These counselors don’t typically offer therapy while on-site, but rather help survivors start the recovery process by helping them build on their personal strengths and inner resilience. Just talking to someone may help you process your thoughts, feelings, and experiences. 

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Has Your Life Been Affected By A Natural Disaster?

At some point, you may also benefit from therapy. While it can be difficult to see a local therapist in the aftermath of a natural disaster, online counseling offers you the ability to communicate as long as there is an internet or cell tower connection. Online therapy allows you to avoid the dangers of traversing roads after a natural disaster. With online therapy, you can connect with a licensed therapist with a phone, tablet, or computer via audio or video chat. You can also contact them at any time through in-app messaging, and they’ll get back to you as soon as they can.

Numerous peer-reviewed studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of online therapy. One study published by Cureus showed that online therapy was effective for a variety of mental health challenges, including anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

Below are some reviews of online therapists at BetterHelp from people who have experienced natural disasters.

Counselor Reviews

“I’ve been working with Lisa for over 2 months now. After Hurricane Harvey, I had a build-up of grief and anxiety I’d never experienced. She has been wonderful in guiding me through work and family-related issues. She asks questions that make you think and help get to the core of the problem.”

Learn More About Lisa Huitt

“I have never felt like someone cares, isn't afraid of beyond surface deep, and it's difficult to appreciate a frontline worker's sense of humor. I would recommend Megan to any first responder (EMS/Fire), nurse, doctor, emergency department staff, or anyone having a rough time during this pandemic. She is amazing at reading me without me saying a word. I appreciate that she has so many ideas on different ways to work through things. Megan is super sweet and motivating! I love that and was paired up with her when I needed all of these things!”

Learn More About Megan Hall

Takeaway

In recent years, natural disasters have had a significant impact on many people’s mental health. From the wildfires in the West to the hurricanes in the Southeast, many natural disasters have wreaked havoc and caused anxiety and post-traumatic stress for many individuals. If you’ve experienced a natural disaster, you may find yourself experiencing a wide range of thoughts and emotions. 

If this is the case, you may benefit from speaking with a licensed counselor, whether in person or online. BetterHelp has a network of more than 25,000 licensed therapists, so you can be matched with a therapist who has experience helping people recover from a natural disaster. Take the first step toward healing after a natural disaster and reach out to BetterHelp.

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