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  • Tara Ferguson, PhD

Dealing with Hurricane-Related PTSD and Substance Abuse

Guest blogger Patrick Bailey is a professional writer mainly in the fields of mental health, addiction, and living in recovery. He attempts to stay on top of the latest news in the addiction and the mental health world and enjoy writing about these topics to break the stigma associated with them.

Many things can cause a person to experience trauma. Trauma is anything that causes so much stress that it affects a person's ability to cope. From a life experience such as a divorce, to human-caused trauma such as physical abuse, to natural disasters such as hurricanes or tornadoes, trauma has many causes.

Sometimes, trauma can cause post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. Trauma is also one reason people might end up in substance abuse rehab programs because they’ve been using drugs and alcohol to cope with their emotional pain.

What Is PTSD?

PTSD is a mental health disorder. While it shares characteristics of other conditions, it’s also different from anxiety, stress, and depression. While many people who go through traumatic events have difficulty coping, they usually improve with time and self-care. But for those whose symptoms worsen, interfere with their day-to-day functioning, or last for an extended time, they may have PTSD.

To diagnose people with PTSD, a doctor will look for the symptoms below and note if they’ve been occurring for at least one month:

One or more symptoms that involve re-experiencing the trauma incident(s), such as flashbacks or bad dreams

One or more avoidance symptoms, including staying away from places associated with the incident(s)

Two or more arousal and reactivity symptoms, such as being easily startled or having difficulty sleeping

Two or more more cognition and mood symptoms, including distorted feelings and loss of interest in activities

What Causes PTSD?

When you are in a traumatic situation, it can trigger your fight-or-flight response, causing changes in your body. Your alertness, blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing all increase. This is your body's way of protecting itself. After a traumatic situation, most people’s functions return to normal and they feel better. For those who have PTSD, the stress and fear linger long after the traumatic event is over.

PTSD might occur right away or come on unexpectedly some time after a traumatic incident. It can come and go over time. It's hard to know why some people have PTSD and others don't, but researchers believe that genetics, neurobiology, risk factors, and personal factors may all play a part.

Hurricane-Related PTSD

Hurricanes, like other natural disasters, can be more traumatizing than just the event themselves. Beforehand, you might experience frenzy and panic because you don’t know where the storm will hit and how severe it will be. You might be busy and stressed because you’re making preparations.

Then there’s the stress of experiencing the hurricane itself. Even after the event, the pressure could remain.

That’s because after a hurricane, people might experience

Exhausting cleanup and rebuilding processes.

Health issues or the health issues of loved ones.

Property damage.

Displacement if the storm has destroyed their homes or neighborhoods.

All can feel overwhelming.

According to estimates, hurricane victims are 40% of the people who develop PTSD after a disaster. After Hurricane Maria in 2017, a suicide hotline in Puerto Rico witnessed a massive increase in calls. Even for people who don’t experience injuries or property damage, hurricanes can also cause PTSD because these people might have survivor's guilt.

Studies have also shown that those who have already experienced one traumatic event are especially at risk after another. This was the case for New York residents during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

People who experienced the events of September 11, 2001 were significantly more likely to experience PTSD from Hurricane Sandy. There is also evidence that the greater the severity of the hurricane and the less likely a person had access to assistance, the higher the likelihood they would develop PTSD.

Hurricane-Related PTSD and Substance Abuse

People with a history of substance use are more likely to experience PTSD from a given trauma. Since hurricane victims have higher rates of PTSD, it makes sense that you should seek help if you are dealing with substance abuse and hurricane-related issues.

After 2005’s Hurricane Rita, studies showed that adolescents were more likely to have substance abuse issues than they were before the storm. Studies of Hurricane Katrina (also in 2005) reported similar results. Youth were especially affected by the stress and trauma of a hurricane, although addiction did not ultimately discriminate.

First responders are another group that is at greater risk for PTSD and substance abuse. They might develop PTSD or turn to drugs and alcohol to numb what they’ve seen at work. Researchers are studying mental health, substance abuse, hurricanes, and other factors to determine how they all work together to affect a person after a traumatic incident.

Building Awareness and Finding Help

If you feel that you are already susceptible to substance abuse, you can work to build your resilience to prepare before hurricanes and handle other stressors. You can build resilience by:

Staying connected: creating a place where you can interact with others, whether via a support group, social group, or social network that can help when things get tough.

Getting involved: volunteer to help others to boost your self-esteem and give you a sense of purpose.

Practicing self-care: take care of your health needs by getting enough sleep, staying hydrated, eating healthy and exercising, and giving yourself some quiet time.

Attending therapy: visit or therapist or touch base with a sobriety group sponsor to discuss any feelings you might be experiencing.

When you’re experiencing symptoms of PTSD or dealing with substance abuse issues, seeking the help of a therapist or rehab facility can be effective ways to conquer hurricane-related distress and other problems in your life.

Sources - Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder - Ascertainment of the Estimated Excess Mortality from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico - Posttraumatic Stress Disorder after Hurricane Sandy among Persons Exposed to the 9/11 Disaster - Impact of Hurricane Rita on Adolescent Substance Use

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