Natural Disasters and PTSD

The recent earthquake in the Middle East and the catastrophic loss of life and livelihood will have resulted in symptoms of stress, anxiety, grief, depression and panic for thousands upon thousands of individuals. I recently saw mention of a need for those individuals to be able to access CBT to treat their PTSD. A noble and well meant notion but I thought it might be worth discussing the misunderstanding behind this notion.

PTSD is a specific mental health condition that can develop after a person experiences a traumatic event, such as a natural disaster. While stress, grief, anxiety, depression and panic are common reactions to a traumatic event, they do not necessarily indicate the presence of PTSD.

PTSD is usually only diagnosed if symptoms persist for more than a month and cause significant distress or impairment in daily functioning. The symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Re-experiencing the traumatic event through intrusive memories, flashbacks, or nightmares.
  • Avoiding reminders of the traumatic event, such as people, places, or activities.
  • Negative changes in mood and thinking, such as feeling emotionally numb, hopeless, or guilty.
  • Hyperarousal, such as being easily startled, feeling irritable, or having trouble sleeping.

If you are experiencing these symptoms, it is important to seek help from a mental health professional. Not everyone who experiences a trauma will find their initial distress develops into PTSD.

PTSD or not, how soon after a disaster should someone seek CBT? There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, as the timing of when to seek CBT can vary depending on the individual and the specific circumstances of the disaster.

Immediately after a disaster, it is natural to experience some level of stress, grief, anxiety, depression or panic. This is a normal response to a traumatic event and is not necessarily a sign of PTSD. In the days and weeks following the disaster, most people will begin to recover on their own as they adjust to their new reality. This is the time when talking to a counsellor (which is different to a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist) might be beneficial to support this period of adjustment.

If negative symptoms persist for more than a month and cause significant distress or impairment in daily functioning CBT might be beneficial. While CBT might work for an individual if undertaken within a month of the trauma, the reality is that in the aftermath of a trauma it might be impossible to complete the considerable amount of home-tasks required for CBT to be effective. Worse still, undertaking CBT treatment too soon risks causing further stress. This is why CBT might not be the most appropriate immediate response after a natural disaster.