Skip to main content

Psychological Impact of Natural Disasters in Adults

By Anka A. Vujanovic, Ph.D., and Matthew W. Gallagher, Ph.D.
Department of Psychology, University of Houston

September 6, 2017

Natural disasters can be overwhelming and potentially traumatic life experiences. People directly impacted by natural disasters, such as Hurricane Harvey, may endure serious injuries or near death experiences; they may witness devastation among their friends, family, neighbors, and greater communities; and they may experience the irreparable loss of possessions and property. For those directly impacted, the immediate aftermath of a disaster can be disorienting, marked with displacement, shock, and a strong need to restore order. The weeks and months following a disaster may be consumed with various tasks related to restoration to a “new normal,” sometimes in new homes and with new possessions. Thus, for some people, the full impact of a disaster and its impact on their mental health may not be obvious for weeks or months after the disaster occurs.

Depending on the type and extent of loss, individuals directly impacted by natural disasters may be feeling a strong sense of grief, panic, loss, fear, and sadness. Difficulties sleeping, anger, irritability, and guilt may also surface. Some who were not severely impacted may feel “survivor’s guilt”, overwhelmed by “why them, and not me?” thoughts. However, the majority of individuals who survive natural disasters will ultimately recover without major mental health disturbances, even if they endured spikes in symptoms during or immediately following the disaster.

Maintaining a connection to others in the aftermath of disaster can be healing for individuals and the community. Avoiding isolation and increasing social support is an important factor in building resilience. In addition, although it may be difficult or may evoke feelings of guilt in some, taking time for self-care, such as regular eating, sleep, and exercise, can be key to promoting health and well-being through challenging times. In moments of acute stress or anxiety, deep breathing exercises, journaling, walks, and conversations with supportive others can make a significant difference.

Fortunately, individuals and communities generally display tremendous resilience in the aftermath of traumatic events such as natural disasters and most people are able to bounce back after a period of time. However, it is important to note that a relative minority of individuals may suffer longer-term psychological disturbances, lasting beyond the first month or so following a disaster. Since potentially traumatic life events, such as disasters, can be severe life stressors, people may develop a range of psychological disturbances in their aftermath. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety disorders, or substance use are common conditions associated with extreme life stress and/or trauma. Effective and efficient treatments for each of these conditions are available from providers in the UH community.

People, who experience several of the following symptoms, lasting for one month or more, may benefit from counseling or additional mental health support.

  • nightmares or other intrusive (unwanted) memories of the disaster
  • extreme distress at reminders of the disaster or when recalling upsetting circumstances
  • avoidance of conversations, news, or memories of the disaster
  • changes in the way they think or feel about themselves, others, or the world
  • sleep disturbance (trouble falling or staying asleep, waking up too early)
  • irritability
  • strong startle reactions
  • panic attacks
  • increased and intense worry
  • increased fear and anxiety, including agitation or physiological symptoms (e.g., shortness of breath, muscle tension)
  • depressed mood
  • loss of interest in activities or people
  • sudden decreases in self-esteem
  • sudden changes in appetite (increase or decrease)
  • increased use of substances, including alcohol

If you believe that you or someone you know is experiencing a significant psychological disturbance as a result of Hurricane Harvey, please do not hesitate to reach out for assistance and support. The Trauma and Anxiety Center of Houston (TRACH) located in the Psychological Research and Services Center ( on the UH campus specializes in the treatment of adult anxiety and traumatic stress. Call 713-743-8600 for more information about services. UH Students impacted by Harvey may also contact Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS): 713-743-5454 or