I am constantly amazed at the resiliency of the human spirit. Most people who experience an intense trauma do not develop a long-term mental health issue. They have an understandable level of depression or anxiety as a result of a major disaster such as Hurricane Harvey or Irma, but those problems tend to dissipate after a few weeks.
Some individuals, though, are not so lucky. It is not a matter of weakness—the strong survive and the weak develop major depression or PTSD. That is just not the case. Sometimes, people are genetically predisposed to developing a mental illness. Sometimes, people who have a pre-existing condition experience a worsening of symptoms. Other times, it merely hits one person harder than another.
Regardless of the long-term outcome, most people who are dealing with Harvey or Irma will experience a significant level of short-term stress. It is not uncommon to see people break down into tears, to lose motivation to complete tasks, or to be scared to go outside. Some people will have panic attacks. Others will get angry. Most people will experience the physiological effects—an increase in heart rate, high blood pressure, the familiar tingle of an adrenaline-fueled body. This will make people tired quickly. It will make them grouchy. It will make them sad.
Most of these symptoms are largely unavoidable in the run-up to or the wake of a tragedy. You don’t need to try to ‘fix’ yourself. You don’t need to try to ‘fix’ anyone else, either. You need to be comfortable facing whatever negative emotions arise in you or others and to know that it is a wave that will pass.
If you are empathic toward others, it will help them. Let them know they are not going crazy—everyone feels the way they do right now. You also don’t want to excuse bad behavior—there is a difference between feeling angry and acting out in an angry manner.
Just by being nice to each other, most people will weather this storm.
For a small but significant few, these temporary feelings will turn into something more serious. People are prone to developing Depression, Anxiety, or Acute Stress Disorder, the precursor to PTSD, after a major natural disaster. The symptoms start in the same manner as the normal negative emotions everyone is feeling. But, they last longer, and they tend to worsen over time.
If you see a friend or loved one who is struggling with the aftermath longer than others, or if his or her symptoms are getting worse instead of getting better, it is important to act. Let this person you care about know he/she is not alone and that help is available. In the wake of natural disasters, community mental health centers, the state, and the federal government all offer special mental health services for disaster victims, sometimes for free or a reduced cost. Help your friend get connected with these services. Drive your brother, or sister, or mother, or father to their first appointment. Sit with them as they struggle. Let them know they are not alone.
The human spirit is resilient. We are often stronger than we think we are, and we can handle almost anything. Sometimes something hits us harder than expected, and we need help, though. There is nothing wrong with that.
There is no shame in asking for help. In fact, it is one of the bravest actions a strong person can take.
Max Wachtel, Ph.D. is the 9NEWS Psychologist and a forensic psychologist from Colorado. He is the recent author of Sociopaths and Psychopaths: A Crisis of Conscience and Empathy. He can be found at http://www.maxwachtel.com.