By Stephen Bitsoli

No one likes stress, but it is not a design flaw in our software; it’s a survival mechanism. When it outlasts its usefulness, then it becomes a problem. When sufferers self-medicate, it can become an even bigger problem.

If you’re planning a trip somewhere that’s prone to hurricanes, tsunamis, tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanoes, wildfires or other natural disasters, be prepared for what to expect, and watchful about the possible aftermath.

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Stephen Bitsoli, photo by Heidi Bitsoli

Stress allows the body to perform better for brief periods of time when the circumstances require it. In nature, in the wild, stress can be useful, as it creates the fight-or-flight response through the release of chemicals. Our reaction time and pulse quicken, our lungs and brains use more oxygen more quickly.

But it doesn’t do the body any good to remain in stress mode for too long. For one thing, while reaction time is better, the same can’t be said of judgment. For another, putting stress on the mind or body is like driving an automobile engine in the red; it can burn out or explode.

If a job routinely subjects one to stress or everyday stress is exacerbated or prolonged – by hurricane or other natural disaster, for example – some individuals may be tempted to cope or compensate by using, abusing or misusing alcohol or other legal and illegal drugs. That can exacerbate the problem and lead to alcohol or drug dependence, even addiction.

Acute stress disorder generally manifests in the first month after a disaster, but it sometimes continues after the reason for the stress has passed. When the symptoms last more than a month, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a possibility.

PTSD may be diagnosed when patients experience:

  • Flashbacks during which they relive the stress-causing event, and try to avoid anything that reminds them of it.
  • Trouble sleeping, bad dreams when they do, and scary/negative thoughts when awake.
  • Impulse control: they startle easily, engage in angry outbursts
  • Loss of interest in previously pleasurable activities

Soldiers returning from combat are the best-known examples, but many people and professions can suffer from it, too, including police, firefighters and emergency medical personnel.

(During a radio interview with a spokesperson for first-responders to a recent natural or man-made disaster, the reporter asked how these rescue professionals were holding up. The spokesperson seemed grateful that the reporter thought to ask).

It’s far too early to be sure what long-term stress or PTSD and consequent substance abuse to expect the mass shooting in Las Vegas, the wildfires in California, or Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, but a 2012 study found that at least half of PTSD sufferers also abuse drugs, and vice versa, a problem known as dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorders.

Studies of past disasters can give us some ideas of what to expect. One year after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the prevalence of PTSD increased from 15 to 21 percent in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, and people reporting suicidal thoughts went up more than doubled from 2.8 to 6.4).

Those are still fairly small percentages, and that’s because people mostly are resilient, says Sarah Lowe, an assistant professor of psychology at Montclair State University in New Jersey.

More surprising is that some people – about 5 percent – actually feel better after a tropical storm, reporting better mental health than before the storm. This is sometimes called post-traumatic growth. Usually this only occurs among people who had abnormally high stress to begin with. Lowe isn’t sure why this is the case, but she suggests that maybe they never received mental health services until after the disaster.

There also have been studies of what workers on ships or offshore rigs – routinely exposed to life-threatening injuries at sea and not always a swift ambulance ride away from emergency care – cope or fail to cope with the stress.

Crew members might take a hard opioid drug such as heroin to cope with stress and get some sleep. Then they might try to counter the effects with another drug, a stimulant such as cocaine, so they could do their work. It’s a vicious cycle that further stresses the body and mind.

According to an article on the National Institute on Drug Abuse website, stress can be “the result of fatigue and disadaptative manner of reaction that drives the human being to cope; addiction could be one of these coping solutions (using drugs or behavioral addictions). But it also appears that addiction and drug use could generate stress.”

Alcohol, which is not always thought of as a drug, is the most used and abused substance due to its legality and social acceptability. Investigators found that Manhattan residents reported a 27 percent increase in alcohol consumption after Sept. 11, 2001, though that had decreased to only a 5 percent increase among all New York residents after five months. (Tobacco and marijuana rates also went up.)

Even if the stressed worker only uses drugs while ashore, it still can affect the lives and safety of those on the ship or rig. Drug Abuse at Sea it states that “most drugs have long term effects which continue long after drug taking has ceased,” roughly 1-to-4 days for opioids, amphetamines, LSD, methadone and cocaine, possibly longer for marijuana.

Stress does need to be controlled, but there are drug-free ways of coping, with instruction and therapy available at the best alcohol treatment centers or drug addiction rehab program:

  • Listen to relaxing music.
  • Eat nutritious meals.
  • Exercise, or at least move, walk around and take deep breaths.
  • Avoid “caffeine, tobacco, drugs and alcohol.
  • Write in a journal

Better still, learn these coping methods before you become traumatized or addicted. If you experience a traumatic event, seek therapy as soon as feasible rather than grabbing a bottle (alcohol or pills).

BIO: Stephen Bitsoli writes about the intersection of substance abuse treatment, politics, and related matters for Elite Rehab Placement and several websites and blogs. A journalist for more than 20 years, and a lifelong avid reader, Stephen loves learning and sharing what he’s learned.