Post-Hurricane Harvey: 15 Possible Trauma Responses
If you were the victim of a natural disaster what would you do? Where would you go? Who would you turn to? What would be your fear? For me, my fear would be losing my loved ones, losing my identity and purpose (which has been wrapped in the contents of my daily life), and motivation for life. For many of the victims impacted by Hurricane Harvey, these may be some of the very same fears they are having.
At this time, I can only imagine what their mind and heart must be going through. Perhaps a trauma in your own life helps you to relate.
This article will discuss the traumatic impact of Hurricane Harvey and the trauma responses we are likely to witness in the coming days, months, and years.
Trauma is a topic that I discuss almost every single day in my profession. But it isn’t something that is discussed as much as it should be in mainstream society. As a result, when natural disasters like this occurs, society seems to panic in their attempts to find some kind of resolve or meaning. When no meaning can be found, trauma symptoms are likely to occur.
It is very important that we, who have not been directly influenced by Hurricane Harvey, watch for signs of trauma responses. I define trauma responses as symptoms that occur as a result of one’s trauma. For example, a trauma response to rape might be avoidance of dating, avoidance of children, avoidance of the topic of relationships, poor sleep patterns, poor eating patterns, flashbacks, memories, intrusive thoughts, etc. Trauma responses are signs that the individual is not doing well.
Some of the trauma responses I encourage you to look out for include but are not limited to:
- Flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, nightmares: Flashbacks are like mini-versions of a traumatic event that continue to revisit you over and over again. They are triggered by sensory or emotional stimuli that reminds you of the trauma. Intrusive thoughts are thoughts that you cannot control because the mind “automatically” revisits the trauma over and over again. Sometimes, as I explain to many of my clients suffering from PTSD, “flashbacks” or mini-versions of the trauma can seep into our dreams and become nightmares. All of these things are likely to occur for many of the displaced victims of Hurricane Harvey.
- Re-organization of perception of life: A re-organization of one’s perception of life tends to happen when tragedy strikes. Questions about purpose, meaning, goals, direction in life, etc. are often revisited following a natural disaster. In fact, many victims of traumatic incidents seek therapy for this reason alone. They are looking for answers to deep seeded questions. When someone is “re-organizing” their perception of life or belief system, they are likely to question their purpose in life, the purpose of others, the purpose of suffering, the purpose of happiness, etc. It is very normal for a victim of trauma to reconsider everything they thought they knew. Wouldn’t you?
- Search for why: It is natural to ask why. It is natural to ask God why. Despite what traditional Christian views say in regards to questioning God (i.e., “you shouldn’t question Him”), a real and authentic relationship with God (void of religious rules and regulations or unhealthy strict rules), says it is okay to question God in a respectful fashion. I once counseled a client who constantly asked God, in sessions with me present, “why.” She would say in the most humble voice “why me God? Why have you chosen me to experience this pain Lord? Why?” Matthew 27:46 is a raw expression of asking God why. Charisma Magazine gives us a detailed look at this dilemma. It’s okay to ask God why. It’s ok.
- Anger, resentment, regret: Anger, resentment, and regret is likely to surface once the initial trauma is over. The shock, the survival mode, the flight or fight response, and the “power through” attitude is going to wear off as the days go on. Once it does, anger is bound to set in. Anger at what happened, why it happened, how it happened, what happened in the process, what happened after the disaster, etc are all likely culprits in the development of anger. When I discuss grief and loss with my clients I often bring up the stages of loss. The stages of loss include:
- Denial – The attitude that things either didn’t happen at all or happen the way you thought it happened originally.
- Anger– The questioning faze where emotions are often all over the place and the mind is racing for “why.”
- Depression-Feelings of defeat, hopelessness, helplessness, or isolation and withdrawal.
- Bargaining – The attitude that if you do good or “give back,” God will bring back what you lost or change your situation.
- Acceptance– This is the stage where grief is less overwhelming. I often explain this stage to my clients to be the stage where discussion of the grief and loss becomes slightly easier. It is a stage where acceptance doesn’t always mean “getting over” the pain. Acceptance means being able to survive the grief and being able to take steps forward no matter what.
- Suicidal thoughts: Suicidal thoughts are likely to occur at some point as the victims of Hurricane Harvey scramble to put their lives back together. Finding shelter, employment, lost belongings (if possible), loved ones, friends, etc. is going to be one of the most difficult parts of this trauma for the victims. They will need a lot of love, compassion, and prayer to get through this. In the process of putting their lives back together, healing their emotional and psychological wounds, and moving forward, it is possible that feelings of defeat, denial, hopelessness, helplessness, and depression begin or return. In order to cope with the trauma suicidal thoughts may arise. It’s a natural “fight or flight” response.
- Isolation/withdrawal: Isolation and withdrawal may already be an issue for many of the displaced victims in Texas. Isolation and withdrawal is a byproduct of depression and the grief and loss stage. It would be wonderful if someone could bring some kind of entertainment to displaced victims after things calm down in an attempt to “pull out” those who may be hiding away as a way to cope with grief.
- Depression and/or anxiety: Depression and/or anxiety is also a byproduct of grief. Depression may not be observed right away but it is likely to occur soon after the shock wears off or soon after the victims begin trying to put their lives back together again. Mental health professionals will be needed to support the victims.
- Anhedonia/loss of pleasure in life: Loss of pleasure in life (i.e., anhedonia) is also likely to occur after a traumatic situation. How could you find pleasure in life when you are facing so much pain?
- Misappropriated anger or resentment: It is also likely that individuals who have experienced trauma begin to take their anger, resentment, or pinned up frustration out on family members, friends, coworkers, or even strangers. Internalized anger, resentment, frustration, or pain can result in irresponsible behaviors, substance abuse/use, violence, risky behaviors, worsening mental illness, worsening medical conditions, etc. These are all issues that will require the help of trauma therapists, pastors, etc. in the coming days.
- Verbal or physical aggression: Pinned up or internalized anger can turn into verbal or physical aggression. When fatigue is high including a lot of other normal human reactions to terrible events it is very likely that everyone begins to feel tired, burned out, or exhausted. When this happens, verbal and physical aggression is likely. Can you imagine trying to survive in a shelter with someone else who may be behaving inappropriately, saying triggering things, or “rubbing” you the wrong way? How would you react. For tired, burned out, and hurting people, “snapping” is a natural reaction to agitation.
- Low self-esteem, self-efficacy, self-worth: The loss of everything can be devastating. Everything. Where do you turn? How do you replace everything? Even though most people shy away from complaining about the material things they have lost, you can’t help but express regret at the fact that their lives are torn apart. The material wealth we have to survive means a lot to all of us. Even though we must be careful not to “praise” material wealth, we cannot ignore the fact that material wealth helps us to literally survive and develop an identity in the world. A family home built on love, a brand-new car purchased by a loved one, or years of family photos and memories gone in a hurricane can not only lead to depression but low self-esteem or self-worth. Part of our identity is wrapped in the materials we have to a certain extent. Not being able to go home, get in one’s car, or retrieve memories is devastating to say the least.
- Questions about parenthood: Many of the women (some of which are lower income single mothers or grandparents raising their grandchildren) displaced by the hurricane are likely to question their ability to parent and provide. Not being able to provide shelter or food to children can be one of the most daunting realities faced in this life. Being the only reliable source of support for a family but not being able to supply everyone’s need can truly result in questions about ability to continue on as a parent. The very thing a parent does to ensure the safety and health of their child is being stolen by this natural disaster. How do we help these parents see that this tragedy has nothing to do with their abilities and that relying on the aid and support of others is okay?
- Lack of motivation or “energy” for life: If you lost everything you’ve ever worked for, earned, developed, or accumulated over time, would you want to live? Would you have motivation to continue? To rebuild? For a lot of people who are honest with themselves, they would not. Thankfully there are some people who are wonderful examples of perseverance because without them, things would be so terribly hopeless. Loss of motivation is a normal part of the trauma response cycle. Having someone around that can maintain hope no matter what is going to be extremely important for victims.
- Labile moods and affect: Switchable or changeable moods is likely to become an issue for the victims of Hurricane Harvey. The simple fact of being torn by life to perform very well on one end and then grieve on the other is likely to cause conflicting emotions. For example, a victim of Hurricane Harvey may feel depressed and need time to grieve but is unable to due to needing to return to work and appear “ok” to everyone on the job. A victim of Hurricane Harvey may also “adopt” labile moods when a mother is pulled on by her children to smile and put on a happy face despite deep feelings of loss, resentment, and confusion.
- Recurrent memories of loss: Recurrent memories of loss are very likely for people who have experienced a traumatic event. Memories stored in the brain are likely to be triggered when sensory or emotional stimuli is in our environment. For example, walking in a mall and hearing, seeing, or smelling something that reminds you of the tragic event is likely to bring to awareness stored memories that are problematic, upsetting, or destabilizing. Recurrent memories of a negative nature is a hallmark feature of PTSD. These recurrent memories are almost always negative and almost always trigger a negative chain reaction. In fact, one of my adolescent clients experience “chain reactions” to stimuli in her environment that triggers negative memories of her trauma. If is often difficult for her to return to a state of equilibrium once triggered.
Despite all of the above, I strongly believe (and have seen work in my own life) the power of faith, the power of courage, the power of strength and perseverance, and the power of resilience. The victims of this terrible natural disaster will never forget this event in their lives. It will always be with them. But I strongly believe that we can help them through it. We can help them together.
For a video on my thoughts and feelings about this terrible disaster, visit my website at anchoredinknowledge.com. Please show your support to the victims. Join me.
I wish you all the best
Hill, T. (2017). Post-Hurricane Harvey: 15 Possible Trauma Responses. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 24, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/caregivers/2017/08/post-hurricane-harvey-15-possible-trauma-responses/