What Happens After Disaster Strikes?

PTSD after natural disaster found to be low in low risk individuals

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) When a natural disaster strikes, it's hard to predict how different individuals involved will be affected. Some may develop PTSD but recover, and others develop more resilience.

A recent study found that low-risk individuals in a natural disaster tend to have lower post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) rates than found in other studies.

About one in ten vacationers who were in Southeast Asia during the tsunami eventually experienced PTSD.

But most recovered, and the number still experiencing it after six years was very low.

"Talk to a doctor if you have PTSD symptoms."

The study, led by Filip K. Arnberg, of the National Centre for Disaster Psychiatry in Uppsala, Sweden, looked at how common PTSD was among individuals who had low risk factors for the disorder until their traumatic experience.

The researchers conducted interviews with 142 Swedish adults who had been on vacation in Southeast Asia when the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami occurred.

The participants were considered at low risk because they generally had higher educations and incomes, and most were employed or retired.

Most participants also did not have a history of other mental health issues and did not have the same stressors that other survivors of natural disasters often have.

The interviews were done six years after the tsunami and involved questions related to symptoms of PTSD, depression, anxiety and alcohol abuse.

Over the full six years, 11.3 percent of the individuals had experienced PTSD. At the six-year point when the interviews were conducted, 4.2 percent of the participants had PTSD.

Generally, the PTSD symptoms began within one month of the disaster, and the individuals generally recovered within three years after it.

For those who did have PTSD, thoughts of suicide and having other mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety, were common.

Among the individuals interviewed, 19 percent had had depression at least once in their lives, and 4 percent had abused alcohol in their lifetimes.

Further, 7 percent of the participants had been diagnosed with "specific phobia" in their lifetimes. Specific phobia is a type of anxiety in which a person is particularly anxious about a specific object, animal or experience.

"The findings suggest elevated levels of PTSD but not other disorders as compared with general population samples, but still lower levels than other disaster samples," the authors wrote.

In other words, these participants did have higher levels of PTSD than the average population, but they were not as high as found in other studies about survivors of natural disasters.

"There are many factors that can influence how an individual may respond to a natural disaster or other traumatic event," said dailyRx expert Seanna Crosbie, LSW, the Director of Program Services at Austin Child Guidance Center in central Texas.

She said these factors include the person's history of previous trauma, the age the traumatic event was experienced, the frequency of the trauma (chronic, or ongoing, versus a single episode), the person's copings skills, their personal resources, and their available support network.

"This article supports the theory that promoting resiliency and protective factors prior to trauma may reduce the risk of developing trauma symptoms following an event," Crosbie said. 

"Research tells us that one of the most significant ways to protect against post-traumatic stress disorder is to build resiliency through the use of positive coping skills and support and to seek help following a traumatic event," she said.

The study was published in the April issue of the Journal of Anxiety Disorders. The research was funded by the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare. No disclosures were noted.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
May 21, 2013
Last Updated:
August 5, 2013