Some Still Deal with PTSD, Five Years after Harvey

Five years after Harvey, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) still haunts many of the victims. Readers have written me about how hard they find it to shake painful memories.

  • Some complain about periodic flashbacks, often related to a trigger event, such as looking at a photo of a cherished possession they lost in the flood.
  • Others still panic in thunderstorms or can’t sleep when it rains.
  • Many feel rising anxiety as they track each new storm crossing the Atlantic.
  • Dozens feel anger at or get depressed by the slow pace of mitigation.
  • Two even told me recently that they may move away. Recovery after Harvey was so traumatic that they “can no longer live with the risk of flooding again” as one succinctly phrased it.

Recurring, Unwanted, Intrusive Thoughts

These different reactions represent a spectrum that most likely reflects a blend of the individuals’ experiences and tolerance for risk. The thing they all have in common: recurring, unwanted, intrusive thoughts that they find disturbing or disruptive.

Even though PTSD symptoms may not be as strong or as frequent as they were immediately after the storm, some still find them hard to shake and difficult to handle.

The Professionals’ Perspective

So, I contacted two local, highly respected therapists, Janice Costa LPC, LMFT, and Joni Adams M.A., LPC-S, to learn more.

Both said that they rarely see clients with Harvey trauma as their main complaint these days. But Harvey does often come up when dealing with clients’ other concerns.

Said Costa, “Things pile up. It wasn’t just the flood. It often relates to dealing with the aftermath.”

Chain-Reaction Traumas

That fits with what people have told me. One trauma piles on top of another. At first, it might have been throwing out treasured family heirlooms, such as a grand piano. Seeing belongings piled at the curb. Losing privacy as strangers gutted your home. Dealing with absentee contractors. Living in travel trailers for 18 months. Applying for financial aid. Waiting years for a check, then being denied. Depleting savings or cashing in their kids’ college funds to pay for repairs. Living with the consequences of that as kids apply to colleges. Losing a lifestyle once loved and friends cherished.

We’ve all heard similar stories.

The trauma caused by a storm like Harvey can have extensive and long-lasting consequences. Like a series of dominos, one thing leads to another, triggering recurrent and unwanted thoughts of the original event.

Said Costa, “They’re still trying to process one trauma, when something new happens. It’s like the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Trigger Events

Without revealing any patient information, both Adams and Costa talked about things that trigger flashbacks.

Said Adams, “Many people find that anniversary dates of trauma events are triggers. So are stimuli similar to the client’s experience (such as heavy rain, street flooding, weather notifications, or storms in the Gulf).”  

Costa mentioned that sometimes the traumas can be unrelated or only loosely related. For instance, one reader told me about the death of a parent. The parent had taken in her daughter’s family after the storm. At the parent’s funeral, the memories of Harvey, mixed with grief, became overpowering for the daughter.

Blended Traumas

Adams echoed Costa’s observations. “Although clients may not present with Harvey complaints as their primary reason for entering therapy today, it likely still affects some. Some already had a trauma history when Harvey hit. Then they experienced more trauma in the years following. Harvey gets blended into the client’s internal reality as opposed to being seen as an isolated trauma event that happened five years ago.”

“Because of my son’s allergies, we couldn’t move back in until all the drywall repairs were finished.”

“For some clients, the correlation between Harvey and current PTSD symptoms may be clearly identifiable,” said Adams. But in others it may be hard to link symptoms directly to Harvey alone.

The woman who owned the house above, for instance, was struggling with the aftermath of a divorce and her son’s medical issues when Harvey struck. She told me with a tear in her eye, “I can’t do this anymore.” Her parting gift to Houston was emotional testimony to the SJRA board about her experience. During her talk, she broke down crying; so did some in the audience. Shortly after that, she moved closer to family in another state.

Progression of PTSD

Said Costa, “After Harvey there were people who had symptoms of PTSD within a few weeks. Some took much longer to show symptoms. Not everyone who flooded got PTSD. 

“With the flood many people dealt with multiple traumas. PTSD can often be dealt with within six months, but in some people it can become chronic and last for years. There definitely are people still suffering from PTSD caused by the flood.” 

Costa also talked about how PTSD might manifest itself in people’s lives today. It varies from client to client. “Intrusive thoughts about what they went through, avoidance of external reminders, negative changes in thoughts and mood, and changes in reactivity are all recognized symptoms. People may still be having nightmares, sleep disturbances, intrusive thoughts, inability to concentrate, and more anxiety than in the past.”

“Some feel like their brains are stuck in danger mode.”

Janice Costa, LPC, LMFT

Costa also talked about children and people in their seventies. “Children who have PTSD,” she said, “may be emotionally numb for a period, or have depression and/or anxiety.”

“I also see people in their seventies with these negative flashbacks,” she added. “They can crop up after being dormant for years.” When I asked about why, she theorized that it might relate to the extra time that people in retirement have to ponder life. She observed, “They aren’t consumed by the obligations of work and raising kids.”

EMDR Therapy

Many people who experience fears, anxiety, or sleep problems may not realize that therapy could help. Both Adams and Costa mentioned the success they have had with EMDR therapy. People continuing to struggle may wish to explore the EMDR International Association site. EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.

The Association says, “EMDR is a structured therapy that encourages the patient to briefly focus on the trauma memory while simultaneously experiencing bilateral stimulation (typically eye movement), which is associated with a reduction in the vividness and emotion associated with the trauma memories.”

Therapists use EMDR to help people recover primarily from trauma and PTSD symptoms. However, therapists also use it to treat symptoms of anxiety, depression, OCD, chronic pain, addictions, and other distressing life experiences.

Other therapies sometimes used include Trauma Resolution Therapy and Desensitization Therapy.

If you still experience PTSD symptoms, you may want to explore one of these alternatives. The memory of Harvey may never go away. So, it’s best to learn how to live with it. It could become burned into our collective consciousness under the heading of History. After all, we still talk about the Galveston hurricane of 1900!

Posted by Bob Rehak on 8/27/22

1824 Days (Five Years) since Hurricane Harvey