PTSD and Natural Disasters: How Therapy Can Help You Recover:

More than 1,000 homes were destroyed this past December in Colorado after the Marshall fire, making it the most destructive wildfire the state has seen. Hundreds of other homes were also damaged, burdening the community with grief and exhaustion as they start rebuilding.

Research from other community disasters across the country—think 9/11 or Hurricane Maria—shows that around two-thirds of those impacted will bounce back naturally. The other third is likely to develop PTSD or other mental illnesses related to their trauma. 

The difficult part about providing care to those who need it is identifying their need in the first place. Those who live through a traumatic community event tend not to feel the effects of their trauma until months or years after the fact.

Let’s talk about how to recognize the signs of PTSD and how EMDR therapy can help.

What is Collective Trauma?

Collective trauma happens when a traumatic event impacts a large group of individuals. This can happen across communities or entire generations. Examples include living through war, genocide, slavery, terrorism, or natural disasters. 

If you’re living in the aftermath of the Colorado wildfires, you may be struggling with overwhelming feelings of

  • Fear and/or anxiety
  • Grief and/or rage
  • Survivor’s guilt 
  • Internalized oppression (reinforcing negative stereotypes about others like you)

Positive Outcomes from Collective Trauma

For some people, traumatic events can inspire them to bounce back stronger than before. These people tend to believe in the whole, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!” theory. In psychology, we know this as collective resilience or post-traumatic growth

Remember that everyone experiences trauma differently—while it can inspire some, it can break others. You are not a failure or doing something wrong if your experience with the Colorado wildfires is more negative than those around you. 

Think of it as learning how to hit a baseball. Some people are better at hand-eye coordination and can pick it up quickly, while others become dizzied by the balls zipping by and require a coach to help sharpen their skills. 

Therapists are like baseball coaches for your brain. Instead of adjusting your elbow or your stance, they help to adjust your inner dialogue and perspective. Instead of helping you hit a ball, they help you accept fast-moving events and transition well. You can then move on from traumatic events so that you can live a more authentic life. 

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR) and Natural Disasters

Living through a natural disaster can leave you feeling vulnerable and hopeless. It eradicates your sense of safety and security by taking you by surprise and changing your life entirely. It denies you the opportunity to mentally prepare yourself for catastrophe.

Feeling caught off guard like this can induce a state of constantly being on alert, sending our nervous system into overdrive, even when the threat is gone. This is the face of PTSD, and this is why it becomes so debilitating. You use up all of your mental stamina just getting through the day. 

EMDR can help by giving your brain a second opportunity to reconsider and reorganize how you see trauma. Studies from natural disasters around the world show that early intervention (the first three months after the trauma occurred) can significantly reduce the psychological distress that acutely traumatized individuals face. 

EMDR uses bilateral stimulation to neutralize the negative feelings you have about a specific event. By thinking of the event in a safe space where your brain is replicating rapid-eye movement, (though sound and touch work as well), you re-associate the trauma with neutral stimulation instead of pain, grief, rage, etc. 

After the negative feelings lessen, EMDR therapy continues to support you by re-associating that trauma with positive messages like, “I am here now, and I am safe.” Are you ready to start recovering? Spare yourself the ongoing pain or damage of PTSD by intervening early. Schedule an appointment with me today to get started.