Mental Recovery after a Flood: Researchers Say It’s a Matter of Control

You can’t control Mother Nature

Long after the water from the devastating Colorado flooding recedes, the toll of emotional stress it caused will continue. Studies on flooding and psychological well-being after flooding indicate that although the major stressor of flooding is the disaster itself, the secondary stressors of rebuilding and returning to normal life can pose substantial social and mental health problems for months or years afterward. These problems range from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) to clinical depression and anxiety, to substance issues and relationship problems. Even the most resilient of people will struggle with the challenges a flood and its survival demand. But, the research also shows that if you have an overall feeling of being in control of your life now, you’ll fare better than most after a flood.

Flooding is the most frequent type of major disaster in our country. And, if you think you’re safe because you don’t live in a flood zone or in a state that gets a lot of national attention due to flooding, think again. According to NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, “Flooding is a coast to coast threat to the United States and all its major territories in all months of the year.” In fact, three-fourths of all presidential disaster declarations are associated with flooding. All it takes is rainfall for several days or intense rain for a short period of time or when ice or debris buildup in rivers and streams and cause them to overflow. The most common reason for flooding is because the ground gets more rain or melting snow than it can absorb.

Because floods are usually unexpected events and take longer than most disasters to recover from, they have a profound impact on survivors’ well-being, relationships and mental health. Studies show significant increases in depression and anxiety in flooded adults. These manifest in different ways in different people. In an article in the International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, based on research supported by the National Institute of Mental Health, researchers found that after such life-changing disasters as flooding, women were more likely to internalize what had happened causing depression and anxiety, while men were more likely to externalize the outcomes with belligerence and alcohol abuse.

But, while long-term depression and anxiety are widespread among flooding survivors,’ those who had a social network of support afterwards and who had always maintained a sense of purpose in life improved their psychological well-being faster than others. Having a sense of control over your world won’t eliminate the feelings of distress you have during a flood, but it could help you in the long term recovery.

The researchers discovered that people, who believe they have a choice about how they will control their world, are better equipped mentally, to deal with the aftermath of the disaster, than those who have never thought they could control the outcomes of their lives. This sense of control can actually protect you from depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Not only that, but if the disaster you have faced is one from natural causes, such as a flood, which you don’t expect to be controlled, and not a technological disaster, such as an oil spill, which you do expect to be controlled, then you will also fare better.

Like they say, “You can’t control Mother Nature,” but you if you think you can control how you react to whatever she throws at you, you’ll be better off for it.

Written By: Lisa S Nance

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