The Traumatic Stress of Harvey Can Have Unrecognized Long-Term Consequences

Psychologists well understand the consequences of trauma and forms of severe stress. And, even though they may not have all the words to describe what happens to them, almost every person who is intimately involved with a crisis, such as Harvey, knows the effects – “first-hand.” Property loss, health consequences for some, environmental devastation, and likely changes in schedule and lifestyle are just some of the more physical consequences. The
dollar cost of Harvey will be staggering.

However, the emotional impact will be far greater and impossible to place a “price tag” on. There is no recovering a lifetime of memories when your family photobooks or your mom’s china or your child’s school records are swept away by floodwater. I remember friends and family digging through the stench after Katrina’s floodwaters finally subsided, looking for anything that might have survived. Some of us can set that aside and not let the grief and
traumatic memories of the losses evolve into depression and anxiety-related disorders. Others are not that resilient.

But, there is another less known and understood consequence of trauma that I want to talk about today. Research I found when I was writing Stress Solutions for Pregnant Moms indicated that an unnamed group of victims can be the unborn children of women who are pregnant in the midst of a crisis. Medical historians long ago identified that war and natural disasters have significant effects on the children born to women who were pregnant during such events. The van Os study (British Journal of Psychiatry 1998) revealed an increase in schizophrenia among children born to women who were pregnant during the May 1940 invasion of the Netherlands. Laplante et al (Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 2008) explored the cognitive and linguistic functions of 5-year-old children whose mothers had been stranded in a Quebec ice storm. There are several important findings from this study: (1) Children of mothers who experienced high stress during the severe ice storm scored significantly lower on Full Scale IQ and on scales that measure verbal abstract reasoning and information as compared to children of mothers who experienced moderate or low stress during the same natural disaster. (2) The study suggests that timing of the exposure to the natural disaster is important, with poorer outcomes associated with first and second trimester exposure. (3) The negative effects associated with prenatal stress were seen at 2 years, 5 ½ years, and 8 ½ years of age, indicating relatively long-lasting effects.

Countless articles are being published in international journals on this topic leading the American Academy of Pediatrics to issue a landmark warning on January 1, 2012. In their report entitled “The Lifelong Effects of Early Childhood Adversity and Toxic Stress,” they reviewed converging lines of scientific evidence that illustrate how different types of stress can leave a lasting mark on a child’s developing brain and long-term health. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ position paper acknowledges that the period of time from conception through early childhood is critical. They include prenatal stress in their definition of toxic stress and say that children exposed to early stressful conditions are more likely to struggle in school, have short tempers, manage stress poorly, and tangle with the law.

And, while we know how damaging natural disasters are, we do not really know how to mitigate the consequences to people. I hope people can at least be conscious of the effects and work on solutions

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