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After Natural Disasters, Many Years of Post-Traumatic Stress Can Occur

Satellite image of Hurricane Katrina

Susannah Breslin was a free lance journalist who moved from California to New Orleans in 2003. While living in a neighborhood two blocks west of the Mississippi and six blocks west of the Industrial Canal (which went on to flood the city’s 9th Ward), Hurricane Katrina grew into a Category 5 hurricane with winds clocking in at 125 miles per hour.

On the morning of August 29, the cyclone  made landfall near Buras, Louisiana, a small community located at the bottom of the toe of Louisiana’s boot-like shape.From there, the storm swept across east New Orleans. Continuing north, it slipped over the Louisiana-Mississippi border, and on August 30 it weakened to a tropical depression over the Tennessee Valley.

The storm surge produced massive destruction across multiple states, and New Orleans’ levees were breached catastrophically, flooding an estimated 80-percent of the Crescent City. The hurricane left 1,836 dead and hundreds missing.

Susannah fled to Louisiana the day before Katrina hit and watched the destruction on television with the dozens of people who also fled. She finally returned home to a deserted neighborhood now filled with asbestos and mold, and a celing in her bed. Six months later, Susannah was feeling numb and increasingly disconnected. She was unable to think well and felt enraged and anxious. Sleeping led to thrashing and night terrors about the floods.

She withdrew herself from the rest of the world, often wondering if she was dead; if reality was the real hallucination and she lived in an in-between world.  Four years after Katrina hit, she walked into her kitchen and felt frusterated from a work related issue. Susannah slammed her head into the cupboard with all her might and then hit her hand into a different cabinet.

Susannah had post traumatic stress disorder. She often wondered why she developed it, why her over other individuals who had lost more in the storm.

Katrina damage

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a clinical psychiatrist with specialization in PTSD, explained it as, “memories of particular events are remembered as stories that change and deteriorate over time and do not evoke intense emotions and sensations. In contrast, in PTSD the past is relived with immediate sensory and emotional intensity that makes victims feel as if the event were occuring all over again.”

One may experience a traumatic event but is unable to integrate it into a story of their life.

As for those who develop PTSD, it can depend on whether or not one dissociates from the traumatic event. If the event is never fully experienced, it fails to be integrated into a “past-tense” narrative, leaving an individual with an experience playing over and over again.

Certain individuals may not even remember the event while others will have no feelings about it. Some people may act disturbed without knowing why they are behaving that way. And others may use the event to unleash a new path or mindset in life.

Symptoms of PTSD include hyper-vigilance, flashbacks, emotional numbness, night terrors, anger, depression, anxiety, and an exaggerated fight-or-flight response.

Susannah said having PTSD was like looking at life through a pane of smoked glass, that it’s easy for one to become emotionally dead.

With the high number of hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and mudslides occurring throughout the world, it is possible and normal to develop anxiety stemming from the natural disasters.

If the anxiety becomes debilitating and you find yourself with symptoms similar to Susannah’s, it is time to find outside help. If you do not feel or act like yourself, find a good counselor to help diagnose you and start the proper treatment at Apex.