In combination with ongoing stress exposure, anger helps explain the damaging mental health impacts of living through a natural disaster, a team of Australian researchers report in a recent study. Exposure to a life-threatening natural disaster is one of the known potential sources of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a serious mental health condition more commonly associated with sources of emotional/physical trauma such as combat and sexual assault. In a study published in January 2015 in the Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, researchers from several Australian institutions explored the impact that anger and continued exposure to other sources of stress have on the damaging changes in mental health sometimes found in natural disaster survivors.
Natural Disasters and PTSD
The term natural disaster applies broadly to severe weather- and environment-related events such as hurricanes, floods, fires, tornadoes and earthquakes. All such events are marked by serious risks to the lives and well-being of exposed individuals, as well as risks to the cohesion of communities and social support networks. People exposed to a natural disaster commonly experience adverse, short-term changes in their mental and/or physical health. Most affected individuals gradually recover their sense of well-being and don’t suffer long-lasting mental health consequences. However, a significant number of exposed people will eventually develop diagnosable symptoms of PTSD. The National Center for PTSD notes that several known factors can increase the odds that any given person will develop post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of exposure to a natural disaster. These factors include being severely impacted by the physical consequences of a natural disaster, being middle-aged, having no prior experience coping with a natural disaster, having a poorly developed ability to handle stress, having significant mental or physical problems at the time a natural disaster occurs and lacking the personal and social support networks that commonly help ease the impact of trauma exposure. Additional identified risk factors include losing a loved one or friend during a natural disaster, losing contact with family members during a natural disaster and losing your home or other important property during a natural disaster.
Trauma Exposure and Anger
At its core, anger is a survival-based response that prepares the body for action and provides a warning to others who pose some sort of threat. Unfortunately, when this response is triggered frequently, it can harm rather than help and can contribute to a substantial downturn in health and well-being. People who live through highly traumatic events or situations often experience an angry reaction to their circumstances. If such a reaction is not eventually brought under control, it can potentially promote the onset of PTSD. In addition, unpredictable outbursts of anger may constitute an active symptom of the disorder in affected individuals.
Anger, Ongoing Stress and Natural Disasters
In the study published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, researchers from Australian institutions, including the University of Melbourne, the Swinburne University of Technology and Flinders University, used information collected from 1,017 survivors of a 2009 outbreak of severe brush fires to help determine the impact that anger, ongoing stress and other factors have on the odds that exposure to a natural disaster will lead to damaging mental health outcomes. Specific outcomes probed during the project included PTSD, alcohol use disorder and depression. The researchers concluded that, regardless of any intervening influences, exposure to a serious natural disaster is directly related to the chances that any given person will develop PTSD or some other damaging change in mental health. They also concluded that experiencing anger in the aftermath of a natural disaster contributes significantly to the baseline risks for mental health problems; the same finding applies to the impact of exposure to additional major life stresses (e.g., divorce, serious illness or the loss of a job) in the aftermath of surviving a natural disaster. Women have substantially higher chances than men of developing post-natural disaster mental health issues without the intervening effects of anger or major life stress. The study’s authors believe that their findings highlight the potential ill effects of experiencing anger in the aftermath of a natural disaster. They also believe that public health officials can offset much of the identified risk by proactively reaching out to natural disaster survivors. In addition, the researchers believe that assistance in coping with ongoing major life stresses can substantially ease natural disaster survivors’ mental health burdens.