Trauma, due to natural disasters such as the horrendous floods that recently devastated the Southern US and Puerto Rico, can have a profound impact on everyone, even those not directly affected. These traumatic events take a toll on survivors, rescue workers, volunteers, bystanders and witnesses, as well as people who read about it and see the news on television daily. If it seems like national tragedies such as mass shootings and natural disasters have become more common, it is not in your head. With the popularity of social media, information is disseminated instantly, which can make the events seem like they are more frequent but in reality, you are receiving the same information from multiple sources.
With so many people still scrambling in the aftermath of recent hurricanes, the physical impact is easy to understand. Much more challenging to quantify is the effect of these tragedies (and others like mass shootings) on our minds and emotions.
The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) asserts that natural disasters can have profound mental health effects, not just during the event but before and long after as well. SAMSHA goes on to state, “The toll and trauma that stems from disasters can contribute to stress and anxiety, acute stress reaction and ability to self-regulate — and for some, posttraumatic stress disorder.”
What is a Trauma?
Trauma is defined not as much by an event, but more by the person’s reactions and symptoms following. Events such as earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes and mass shootings come to mind when people think of traumatic events. Many also think of serious accidents or witnessing a serious crime as “trauma.”
Mild to moderate stress responses are normal and anticipated following these events. While people’s reactions, feelings and behaviors may seem excessive in the moment, they generally do not transform into chronic problems. However, sometimes the trauma can be so overwhelming that it can “rewire” a person’s brain, putting them in a state of hypervigilance and/or helplessness for months or even years. This can leave them with the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or severe anxiety and depression.
Kids and adults react differently to these situations. Warning signs for kids include isolating themselves or hiding in rooms, changes in eating habits or engaging in fewer social interactions. A child may also have trouble getting over the loss of a favorite item like a blanket or toy. Among school-age kids, the consequences can extend into their capacity to succeed in school, due to both practical considerations and psychological consequences. Parents need to be aware and vigilant of these warning signs, and realize that kids may not be coping well with the events they have experienced and may need help.
People who experience continued symptoms after a trauma can benefit from speaking to a professional therapist. There are many types of therapy that can be helpful for addressing post-event symptoms, such as anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help a person understand behaviors and thoughts that contribute to an attack and change these patterns to decrease the frequency of symptoms and severity.
Finding a convenient and qualified therapist can sometimes be challenging. As such, tele-therapy is a rapidly expanding service, which facilitates therapy via a computer or mobile device. The Pain Project, an online resource and tele-therapy program, is one example of the use of tele-therapy to help people that suffer from PTSD and chronic pain due to traumatic events, injuries, age and more. The Pain Project has found that there are several advantages to getting online help from a licensed professional — access to care in remote areas, convenience, confidentiality and privacy and easier accessibility for people with physical limitations.
Trauma affects everyone at one time or another and can cause both mental and physical pain. Be cognizant of the signs of needing help and contact a licensed therapist.
Michael Munion is chief psychology officer for The Pain Project.