Natural Disasters

What are natural disasters?

Natural disasters include events such as tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, wildfires and tsunamis. Often these events are unexpected, sudden, and overwhelming [1].

Common reactions to natural disasters: [1]

  • Intense, unpredictable feelings
  • Flashbacks
  • Trouble concentrating or making decisions
  • Disrupted eating and sleeping patterns
  • Emotional upsets on anniversaries or other reminders
  • Strained personal relationships
  • Physical symptoms (e.g., headaches, nausea, chest pain)

Prevalence: [2]

  • More than 800,000 deaths have resulted from natural disasters in the past decade [7].
  • In 2010, disasters cost $109 billion worldwide; the estimates more than doubled in 2011 [8] [9].
  • PTSD is likely the most common mental disorder following a disaster: its prevalence ranges between 30-40% among direct victims [10].

Issues associated with specific disasters:

  • Earthquakes: As earthquakes occur with virtually no warning, this limits the ability of the victims to make psychological adjustments that can facilitate coping. Survivors may have difficulty coping with reminders of the destruction (e.g., sounds of explosions, smells of toxic fumes and smoke, and tastes of soot, rubber, and smoke) [5].
  • Hurricanes: Because hurricanes are usually predicted days to weeks in advance, this may foster fear and anxiety. During a hurricane, victims experience intense thunder, rain, lightning, and wind, and this may lead to startle reactions and emotional exhaustion in the time that follows [5].
  • Tornadoes: Similar to earthquakes, tornadoes may occur with virtually no warning. Victims may have difficulty coping with the sights and smells of destruction. Survivor guilt has been observed to be an especially common coping challenge [5].
  • Floods: Regarding flooding and flash flooding, research has shown individuals have difficulty coping with seeing the desolation of the landscape, the smell of sludge and sodden property, coldness and wetness, and vast amounts of mud [5].
  • Residential Fires: Victims of residential fires have many hurdles to overcome, including damage or destruction to their home and possessions, financial hardship, relocation, loss of pets, and medical care. If the residential fire’s cause was arson, victims may also experience continued safety concerns [6].
  • Wildfires: While some people may have hours (or days) to evacuate their homes, others have only a few minutes to gather their belongings and flee, leading to great physical and emotional exhaustion. The sights, sounds, and smells of a wildfire may also generate fear and anxiety [5].
  • Tsunamis: Depending upon how frightening the tsunami was, whether evacuation from home was necessary, and the extent of the loss and damage to the home and the community, individuals will experience varying degrees of distress. The length of recovery will also vary [6].

Risk factors: [3]

  • Level of physical/environmental impact
  • Coping style
  • Availability of social support
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Culture
  • Life experiences

Prevention and intervention: [4]

  • Foster resilience
  • Increase social support and engagement
  • Learn healthy coping strategies
  • Have a plan in the face of the disaster
  • Practice self-care

Helpful websites:

  • Disaster Distress Helpline: SAMHSA’s Disaster Distress Helpline provides crisis counseling and support to people experiencing emotional distress related to natural or human-caused disasters.

[1] American Psychological Association. (2015). Natural disasters. Retrieved from

[2] Cerdá, M., Bordelois, P. M., Galea, S., Norris, F., Tracy, M., & Koenen, K. C. (2013). The course of posttraumatic stress symptoms and functional impairment following a disaster: What is the lasting influence of acute versus ongoing traumatic events and stressors? Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 48(3), 385-395. 

[3] Shenk, D., Ramos, B., Kalaw, K. J., & Tufan, I. (2009). History, memory, and disasters among older adults: A life course perspective. Traumatology, 15(4), 35-43. 

[4] Abramson, D. M., Grattan, L. M., Mayer, B., Colten, C. E., Arosemena, F. A., Bedimo-Rung, A., & Lichtveld, M. (2015). The Resilience Activation Framework: A conceptual model of how access to social resources promotes adaptation and rapid recovery in post-disaster settings. The Journal of Behavioral Health Services & Research, 42(1), 42-57. 

[5] Lazarus, P. J., Jimerson, S. R., & Brock, S. E. (2015). Helping children after a natural disaster: Information for parents and teachers. Retrieved from

[6] The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (2015). Natural disasters. Retrieved from

[7] Guha-Sapir, D., Hargitt, D., & Hoyois, P. (2004). Thirty years of natural disasters, 1974–2003: The numbers. Presses Universitaires de Louvain, Louvain.

[8] Laskow, S. (2011). 2011 natural disasters cost a record $265 billion. Retrieved from

[9] The Economist Online. (2011). Counting the cost. Retrieved from

[10] Neria, Y., Nandi, A., & Galea, S. (2008). Post-traumatic stress disorder following disasters: A systematic review. Psychological Medicine, 38(4), 467-480.