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How People Think and React After a Natural Disaster

By HERWriter
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Mental Health related image Photo: Getty Images

The natural disasters in Japan have given people a lot to think about recently. Although the earthquake and tsunami are over with, there is the destruction left over and the ongoing nuclear power plant radiation concerns.

Some mental health experts gave their viewpoints on how and why people think in a certain way after natural disasters and have certain reactions.

Trauma and PTSD

Anthony Ng, a medical director at Acadia Hospital in Maine and a psychiatrist who specializes in natural disasters, said that there have been so many videos about these natural disasters, and people are generally sad about this tragedy, so this can drag on some emotional reactions.

“This may be tough for people who have gone through similar disasters,” Ng said. “This could reawaken a lot of reactions.”

They might be thinking of a possibility of a natural disaster closer to home, and could be experiencing more anxiety.

People who are indirectly or directly affected by the natural disaster can suffer from trauma, according to an older Psychology Today blog.

“Victims do not need to have experienced the disaster firsthand in order to be psychologically affected,” the article stated. “For example, someone living in San Francisco with relatives in Haiti at the time of the recent earthquake could have been subjected to countless hours of television coverage, coupled with an inability to get information about their own family. This type of situation can take an emotional impact on someone even from afar.”

The American Psychological Association’s website said natural disasters can cause traumatic stress for those involved (or for people who have family and friends who are killed). This experience can sometimes lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, which includes feeling fearful, helpless and sometimes having flashbacks and nightmares.

Many people are resilient enough and bounce back after traumatic experiences and don’t develop PTSD, but others who have risk factors, like experiencing multiple traumatic events, having a mental illness and little support, can suffer for long periods of time, according to the website. Support from others and coping strategies are key to recovery and not developing PTSD.

“I think in general people do pretty well with disasters,” Ng said, at least when they have support.

Robert Hayes, a professor emeritus of counseling psychology at Ball State University in Ohio, agrees that most people are resilient.

“The human being can tolerate so much,” Hayes said, remembering in 9/11 where people ran but “at some point they stopped running and started helping each other.”

Differences between survivors and spectators

Ng said that besides feeling sorrow, people can be frustrated when they can’t get in touch with their families, and there is a wide spectrum of emotions involved in natural disasters in general.

People who are actually in the midst of a natural disaster have more concerns than the average person watching everything on TV.

“Over there, a lot of the survivors are still in survival mode,” Ng said. “They’re trying to get food and shelter, and that’s something to keep them busy a little bit. And here, all we’re doing is just watching TV and getting media input about all the destruction. We have nothing else to preoccupy us with, other than the regular work that we have.”

Because there is a focus on Japan in the media, people can sometimes feel intense emotions because there are no major outside distractions, like for the people in Japan who are still busy with recovery, Ng said. However, people in Japan also might feel differently than those in the U.S. who lose their homes in natural disasters, because they have lost their ancestral homes that hold more of a deep meaning.

Radiation scare

The possibility of radiation exposure is threatening to many people currently, despite reassurances from experts that places like the U.S. should not be affected. Only people in areas close to the nuclear power plant in Japan have been affected so far.

“Radiation has always had a bad reputation,” Ng said, and those fears can be confirmed because it can lead to sickness and even death. People can be fearful of radiation because they can’t see it.

“People tend to be able to respond to some sort of threat easier if they know it’s coming or they can see it,” Ng said. “But when it comes to anything like radiation, chemicals [or] germs where they can’t see it, the anxiety tends to go up a little bit more, because they feel they’re helpless in terms of what they can do to try to minimize the risk.”

Ng said the radiation fear is more of a trust issue, because some people don’t trust the government telling the whole truth.

Hayes agrees with Ng that there is a general fear of radiation.

“Anything that is nuclear is fearful to people,” Hayes said. “We don’t fully understand it, and just the mention of it is scary to a lot of people.”

Individuality or a basic human response?

Another Psychology Today blog talks about the various reactions people can have because of watching the devastating events on TV or experiencing them personally.

“If the earth starts shaking beneath you, a panic button in the amygdala is switched on and preparations start within your body to deal with the emergency. Your ability to handle the emergency will depend on many factors, but all other things being equal, the outcome will depend on how well you can cope psychologically,” according to the blog.

Watching natural disasters on TV seems to make people feel more prepared and confident if they are ever in that situation, but also seeing others hurt on TV can trigger the brain to make people feel that they are also being hurt, according to the blog.

Despite some of these generalizations, both experts said that people are individuals and there is no general reaction people will have after a disaster.

“It kind of depends on how close one is to the disaster and whether they knew anyone, or whether they can identify with anyone,” Hayes said, and the less connection there is to the event, generally there is a lesser amount of emotional reactions.

For people who are fearful and worried in general, they might be an exception, since they might have a stronger reaction to natural disasters even if they are not directly connected in any way.

Ng said people do tend to have intense emotional reactions right after a natural disaster, but it can depend on the location of the person and natural disaster and the connection to the natural disaster, including past trauma.

Some people might blame others, while others are focused on helping during natural disasters, Hayes said.

He said recovery depends on the community, whether they fall into a depression or start lifting themselves up again.

“There comes a point where people realize ‘this was really bad, and it’s never going to be the way it was before, but we have to pick up and start again,’ and then they start eventually coming out of all of that,” Hayes said.

There can be some immunity to news, even when there are natural disasters, because new tragic events are happening all the time.

“We just hear so much news that we kind of somehow get … immune to reacting to all of it,” Hayes said. “The other thing that our news people tend to do, two weeks from now there’ll be another big story, and while the people in Japan are still going to be struggling for months or years, the world’s going to move onto something else.”


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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.