If you’ve lived through a hurricane – especially one with the intensity of Hurricane Ian when it hit Florida and decimated the Southwest Florida Region on September 28, 2022 – it’s common to feel traumatized, fearful, and vulnerable in its aftermath.
It’s also normal to experience a range of intense emotions, from anxiety to depression for days or even weeks after the storm has passed. You may also experience a numbing effect, feelings of shock and a dissociation from reality.
In some cases, your natural post-traumatic stress response may develop into a more serious mental health condition called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
What is PTSD?
PTSD is a mental health condition that can develop after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, such as a natural disaster. PTSD causes people to feel intense fear, helplessness, or engage in avoidance behaviors, like staying away from certain places.
Not everyone who experiences trauma develops PTSD. And the diagnosis isn’t limited to combat veterans, either.
Common symptoms of PTSD can include flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, depression, or feeling numb or “on edge”. These disruptions can negatively impact social interactions, work, school, or other areas of daily life.
PTS vs PTSD
Post-traumatic stress (PTS) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are related conditions that can occur in response to a traumatic event, such as a hurricane or other natural disaster.
“While the terms are often used interchangeably, there are important differences between the two,” says Denise Sanfilippo, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Gainesville, Florida.
PTS is a normal reaction to a traumatic event that occurs in the immediate aftermath of the event.
PTSD, on the other hand, is a mental health condition with specific diagnostic criteria that occurs when PTS symptoms persist for more than one month and begin to significantly impair a person’s ability to function in their daily life.
Factors Contributing to PTSD After a Hurricane
“The sheer intensity of a hurricane can contribute to PTSD development,” says Sanfilippo. “As a lifelong Floridian, I have seen my share of powerful storms.”
People who experience particularly traumatic events as a result of a hurricane, such as being trapped or injured, or suffering the loss of a loved one or pet, may be at higher risk for developing PTSD.
Other factors that can contribute to the development of PTSD after a significant weather event include co-occurring mental health conditions, socioeconomic issues, and exposure to the 24-hour news cycle or social media.
Co-Occurring Mental Health Conditions Need to Be Assessed
It is common for individuals with PTSD to have other mental health conditions as well.
Depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders are among the most common co-occurring conditions.
These conditions can change the treatment plan for PTSD because multiple diagnoses may require the use of different treatment modalities. It is important to continue with treatment for all co-occurring conditions while being treated for PTSD.
At Elite DNA Behavioral Health, we take a holistic approach to developing a tailored treatment plan. We look at everything such as your sleeping habits, lifestyle, physical health, and what the body and mind are experiencing to accurately diagnose PTSD.
24-Hour News Cycle and Social Media Trigger Traumatic Memories
The 24-hour news cycle and social media can also exacerbate the symptoms of PTSD after a hurricane. The constant exposure to news and images related to the hurricane can be overwhelming and can trigger traumatic memories and feelings.
Similarly, social media can expose individuals to negative opinions and flippant comments that can be hurtful or triggering, further exacerbating the symptoms of PTSD.
Following a traumatic incident, take steps to limit exposure to continual news coverage and social media. Tune in just long enough to get critical updates from local government sources.
Socioeconomic Issues and Trauma Response
Socioeconomic issues can also play a significant role in the development and management of PTSD after a hurricane. People who are already struggling with poverty, homelessness, or other socioeconomic issues may be at higher risk for experiencing more severe symptoms of PTSD after a hurricane.
These issues can make it more difficult for individuals to prepare for and respond to a hurricane. Trauma-informed care, which recognizes the impact of trauma on people, aims to promote healing and resilience making it an important approach to addressing PTSD in low-income and marginalized communities.
Addressing Damage and Loss
Individuals whose home and communities were damaged or destroyed can experience added distress and prolonged mental health symptoms. A damaged or non-repairable home can create additional economic stress and uncertainty that can exacerbate post-traumatic stress. Hopelessness, stress, and even trouble eating is common.
People who have lost loved ones or beloved family pets as a result of a disaster live with intense feelings of grief and can also experience survivor’s guilt.
Coming together as a community to rebuild businesses and community areas can be both healing and painful as people grieve once-beloved areas like Fort Myers Beach, which was completely flattened from Hurricane Ian.
Treatment Modalities for PTSD After a Hurricane
There are several evidence-based treatment modalities available to help with healing after a hurricane. Individualized treatment plans will often include individual or group therapy. Some people may need medication to help with some of the symptoms of PTSD.
Talk therapy can be beneficial for individuals with PTSD after a hurricane. Whether a person works 1:1 with a therapist or in a group, both options provide a safe and supportive environment for people to share their experiences following a traumatic event. It also allows people to connect with others who have gone through similar experiences and learn healthy coping strategies from one another.
Medication can also be used to treat PTSD symptoms, including antidepressants, anti-anxiety medication, and sleep aids. These medications can help manage the symptoms of PTSD, but they may also have side effects and should only be taken under the supervision of a healthcare professional following a psychiatric care plan.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is also a common tool used to treat PTSD.
“CBT helps people identify and change negative thought patterns that may contribute to developing more severe PTSD symptoms. It can also teach coping strategies to effectively manage symptoms, such as relaxation techniques, exposure therapy, and mindfulness,” explains Sanfilippo.
Steps for Managing Stress After a Hurricane
It is important for people who have experienced a hurricane and are feeling ongoing stress or experiencing symptoms of PTSD to seek professional help as soon as possible.
“Seeking professional help can reduce the impact of post-traumatic stress on your life, improve overall quality of life, and reduce the risk of long-term complications or development of chronic PTSD,” advises Sanfilippo.
There are also several steps to take to manage symptoms of PTS, including:
- Stay connected with others: Building and maintaining social connections can help people feel supported and connected, which may help reduce negative symptoms of PTS.
- Practicing self-care: Engaging in activities that bring joy and relaxation, such as exercise, meditation, and hobbies, can help reduce symptoms of PTS and improve overall well-being.
- Limiting exposure to triggers: Limiting exposure to news and social media related to the hurricane, as well as avoiding triggers that can cause flashbacks or nightmares, can help manage symptoms of PTS.
- Seeking support from community resources: Community resources such as disaster relief organizations and support groups can provide a range of services to people impacted by a hurricane or natural disaster.
Help and Support is Available Following the Storm
Experiencing post-traumatic stress after a hurricane or other severe weather event is a normal reaction to witnessing a traumatic situation.
The symptoms can become debilitating, but they can also be effectively managed with professional help and self-care strategies.
It’s important to seek help as soon as possible and to remember that you’re not alone in your experience.
“Take steps to manage your symptoms and remember to be kind to yourself as you navigate the path to recovery,” Sanfilippo recommends.
With the right support and resources, you can overcome the symptoms of post-traumatic stress and regain control over your life.
Working with Elite DNA Behavioral Health
We offer professional psychiatric and psychotherapy care in-person at our many locations throughout Florida.
We also offer high-quality, stable, and confidential telehealth sessions through Zoom.
By choosing a quiet, private place from which to conduct your side of the virtual session, you can be assured of an experience just like that you’d have in the office.
You’re Not Alone…We Can Help
Whether in person, or virtually, our mental and behavioral health experts are here to support you every step of the way.
Get started today with help for PTSD from hurricanes and other storms
To Our Neighbors in Fort Myers Beach
and surrounding areas with severe damage
Our team in Fort Myers, Cape Coral and Naples experienced Hurricane Ian, and its aftermath, alongside you. We all experienced the storm at different degrees, and our hearts go out to those who were greatly impacted.
Coping with the loss of loved ones, our homes, and beloved gathering places in our community is difficult. We continue to grieve alongside our community and want to help in any way we possibly can. We know that we can rebuild and grow stronger together.
All of us at Elite DNA want to offer a safe space where you can share your feelings and get the support you need.
You’re not alone. We can help.