Bianca Williams’ home in Candlelight Estates flooded during Hurricane Harvey. Although she and her family have been settled back into their restored home for some time, she still hasn’t completely unpacked.
“I was scared and still am of having anything permanently placed in my house,” Williams said. “Every time we get a really hard rain I get so panicked and nervous. So do my neighbors, actually.”
Williams and her neighbors are not alone. A 2018 study by the UT Health Science Center at Houston found 18 percent of Harris County residents were dealing with serious psychological distress linked to Hurricane Harvey.
While many people associate post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with war trauma – hence the old name “shell shock” – healthline.com reports that PTSD can happen after experiencing or witnessing any stressful event. The event may involve a real or seeming threat of injury or death and can include natural disasters, combat, assaults, physical or sexual abuse and other trauma.
People with PTSD sense danger even when it may not be there. Their natural fight-or-flight response is not functioning properly due to chemical changes in the person’s brain.
Dr. Asim Shah, professor and executive vice chair for community psychiatry in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine, had treated many PTSD patients, including those who came to him after Hurricane Harvey.
Shah said people with PTSD can experience hypervigilance, suffer from flashbacks and nightmares and avoid situations that caused the initial trauma.
The National Institute for Mental Health’s website about PTSD notes that not every traumatized person develops ongoing or even short-term PTSD. And not everyone with PTSD has been through a dangerous event. The unexpected death of a loved one can also cause PTSD.
NIMH says symptoms usually start within three months of the traumatic incident, but sometimes they can begin years later.
Although there is no specific test to diagnose PTSD, Healthline says PTSD can be established by experiencing symptoms for one month or longer and they must be severe enough to interfere with work and personal relationships. Some people recover within six months, according to the NIMH, while others have symptoms that last much longer. For some, the condition becomes chronic.
One of the definitive books on PTSD, “The Body Keeps the Score – Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma,” says that since trauma changes the brain, the therapies to treat it make use of the brain’s neuroplasticity – or its ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life.
Ways to do that are talk therapy, taking the right medications to shut down inappropriate alarm reactions or by allowing the body to have experiences that challenge the helpless feeling of trauma.
For more information about PTSD and ways to treat it, visit https://www.ptsd.va.gov/.