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Cape Coral Living Magazine

PTSD in Natural Disasters

Jun 30, 2023 09:12AM ● By Anna Shuster

The threat posed by potential storms may trigger frightening and unavoidable memories of past natural disasters. Anna Shuster, DO. PHOTO COURTESY OF PPCSWFL

Hurricane Ian was among the most destructive natural disasters Florida has ever known, with nearly $113 billion in damage and 152 deaths. While it was easy to see the physical destruction, one hidden cost associated with Hurricane Ian was much harder to assess.
Natural disasters such as hurricanes can cause mental health issues for people who live through them. One of these is post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, which manifests in a variety of ways, including depression, anxiety, fear, and worry about future events. As another hurricane season gets underway, it’s important to understand how natural disasters can cause PTSD, how to identify the signs and symptoms, and when to seek help.

Regardless of the forecast for the 2023 Atlantic hurricane season, the threat posed by potential storms may trigger frightening and unavoidable memories of past natural disasters, causing increased stress for those who have lived through a hurricane.
The main symptoms associated with PTSD include:
• Overwhelming emotions when reliving the experience through flashbacks, intrusive memories, and bad dreams.
• Emotional numbness or inability to feel positive emotions.
• Disassociation or disconnection from yourself or others.
• Avoidance behaviors, including distraction from the trauma, people, or situations that remind you of the events.
• Uncontrollable physical reactions when reliving the event, including heart racing, trouble breathing, and profuse sweating.
• Difficulty with recall and forgetfulness (sometimes related to the event).
• Feelings of isolation and detachment.
• Being easily frightened.

Each person’s experience of PTSD is unique. Though you may have experienced a similar type of trauma as someone else, you may be affected in different ways. Regardless of how it manifests for you, if you experience any of these symptoms for more than a month or if they are severe, you need to contact your doctor.

The most effective method of dealing with PTSD caused by a natural disaster is to seek professional counseling and support. If that is not immediately accessible, there are ways to lessen the effects of the anxiety that may arise.
The following techniques can help you care for your emotional health, whether you struggle from severe symptoms or not.
• Be prepared. Planning and preparing for storms can help decrease anxiety and stress. Outline an emergency plan, gather a personal hurricane kit, and map out your evacuation route. The act of refilling prescriptions early and storm proofing your home can help you mentally and emotionally prepare for future storms.
• Take a breath. Quite often, fright will cause you to alter your normal breathing pattern, which increases fear and panic. Concentrating on breathing slowly in and out while counting to five can significantly reduce stress and anxiety when triggering events occur.
• Carry a personal object. Holding an object that grounds you in the present can be comforting during a flashback. A favorite piece of jewelry or small keepsake that reminds you of a positive experience can help you focus on the present.
• Calm yourself. During flashbacks, focus on the here and now and use some comforting phrases to remind yourself that the trauma is over and you’re safe.
• Find your comfort zone. When feelings start to get away from you, cuddle your pets or curl up in a blanket while enjoying your favorite music or film.

Even if you aren’t directly affected by a natural disaster, you can still develop increased fear, stress, or anxiety by simply watching intense coverage of events on the news. The symptoms of PTSD impact the body and mind in different ways, so it’s important to recognize them and develop healthy habits to prevent triggering events in the future.
If you feel you may need professional help, contact your primary care physician.

Anna Shuster, DO, is a family medicine physician with Physicians’ Primary Care of Southwest Florida with offices throughout Lee County (; 239-275-5522).