Technological disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill, chemical spills, or radiation leaks can be stressful. This publication reports on the impacts of technological disasters and offers some guidelines for families that are dealing with stress related to a technological disaster.
What is a technological disaster?
A technological disaster is an event caused by a malfunction of a technological structure and/or some human error in controlling or handling the technology. Technological disasters can be considered a man-made disaster meaning there is an "identifiable cause" characteristic. Due to this characteristic, impact on communities can often be more detrimental (Goldsteen & Schorr, 1982). The effects of a disaster on families and individuals may be long lasting and can endure for years. However, symptoms may appear gradually, and impacts may not be seen immediately.
All types of disasters are challenging, but technological disasters tend to be even more difficult for the following reasons:
The threat cannot be anticipated. A technological disaster is sudden, unexpected, and unpredictable.
People are responsible. Victims of technological disasters tend to feel anger toward people who were responsible for accidents that may have been prevented.
Community breakdowns and conflict may result. Technological disasters can create disputes within communities.
Longer Recovery—Community members tend to concentrate on litigation and blame and less on cleanup and recovery (Picou, Marshall, & Gall, 2004).
Media Exposure—Media covering a technological disaster can be constant, adding to already heightened stress levels (Morris et al., 2013).
Technological disasters tend to affect specific occupational groups. In the case of the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill, the fishing and tourism industries were severely impacted as damaged renewable natural resources were destroyed (Grattan et al., 2017). In addition, the social and economic impact from this disaster was widespread, impacting communities in five coastal states. Many communities experienced effects, even if they did not have oil on their coast (Morris et al., 2013).
Examples of Technological Disasters
In addition to the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill, radiation leaks are another example of a technological disaster, such as in the case of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in Japan and previous accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. Fires or explosions—such as the Station Nightclub fire in Warwick, Rhode Island, which was caused by a pyrotechnics malfunction—are also examples of technological disasters. Chemical spills from trucks or trains would also be considered technological disasters. These examples all have differing characteristics and effects on the environment and residents of the immediate disaster area.
Effects of Technological Disasters
Technological disasters are stressful, especially because they are unpredictable. Individuals, families, and communities are affected. Some of the results include income loss, loss of job security, uncertainty about the future, family conflict, and stress.
In particular, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety symptoms were common responses to a disaster similar to the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill, the Exxon Valdez oil spill (Arata, Picou, Johnson, & McNally, 2000). Impacts may persist over time for some individuals, while others show resilience earlier (McGinn & Spihdel, 2007). In addition, there are immediate and long-term impacts on mental health.
Individual stress from a disaster may result in some of the following symptoms:
Emotional—Anxiety, shock, disbelief, fear, irritability, anger, sadness, depression, resentment, guilt, shame, and nightmares
Cognitive—Confusion, disorientation, decreased attention span, memory difficulties, trouble concentrating at work, and self-blame
Behavioral—Increased alcohol or drug use, heavier smoking, increased arguing or conflict with family members, withdrawal, domestic violence, and suicide attempts
Environmental worry—Worry over environmental restoration and recovery (Grattan et al., 2017)
Most individuals do not show all of these symptoms, but it is common for those under a high degree of stress to show at least one or two. Those who are experiencing a large number of symptoms or those whose symptoms are impacting their ability to function in daily life should seek professional assistance. Not only can high levels of stress have a negative impact on the individual, but the poor functioning that often results from such stress could also have long-term impacts on children and the family as a whole.
Marriage and partnerships have the potential to be negatively affected by stress following a disaster. For example,
couples can experience difficulties arising from loss of trust, irritability, withdrawal, or isolation; and
women tend to feel marital stress following a disaster.
Women also absorb their husbands' stress more powerfully than their husbands absorb theirs (McGinn & Spindel, 2007).
The ways in which children respond to a disaster depend in part on age. Below, separated by age range, are some typical behaviors that might be exhibited by children under stress.
Preschool age (1–5) symptoms of stress:
Acting younger through behaviors such as thumb sucking and wetting the bed
Expressing feelings of helplessness
Struggling with understanding the disaster
Exhibiting behavioral problems such as crying, throwing tantrums, behaving aggressively, or being defiant
Changing sleeping and eating patterns
School age (5–11) symptoms of stress:
Acting younger through behaviors such as asking their parents to dress them
Having trouble focusing on schoolwork
Displaying aggressive behavior due to increased anger
Exhibiting behavioral problems such as withdrawal, tearfulness, and defiance
Adolescent symptoms of stress:
Becoming less interested in activities previously enjoyed
Engaging in risky behavior
Withdrawing from friends, which could lead to breakdowns in relationships
It is important to note that children tend to deal with stress and loss differently than adults, and their expression of stress may come out in more subtle ways. It is also important to remember that a child's ability to understand the impact of a disaster is often limited, particularly for younger children. Although children tend to be fairly resilient in dealing with adversity, children repeatedly exposed to trauma—such as those who live in disaster-prone areas or in places where there is recurring violence—are at higher risk for the development of mental health problems (Williams & Alexander, 2009). Not all children are resilient, so it's important for parents to pay attention to children's reactions and provide the support and reassurance they need.
Guidelines for Dealing with the Stress of a Technological Disaster
Individuals are advised to do the following:
Maintain routine as much as possible.
Reduce exposure to media covering the event.
Stay healthy and find healthy ways to reduce stress, such as doing things outside, getting exercise, and doing stress reduction exercises.
Seek accurate sources of information to better understand the situation.
Talk to someone you trust.
Keep a positive perspective—you can get through this!
Seek professional help if you are feeling depressed, anxious, or have trouble controlling your emotions.
Couples are advised to do the following:
Talk with each other about what you are going through.
Be patient with each other.
Discuss how bills will be paid if there has been a job loss; develop a plan.
Seek counseling if the relationship is under too much strain.
The impact of any disaster on children depends in large part on how adults in the home respond. To minimize the stress for children, parents are advised to do the following:
Limit watching television coverage of the disaster.
Answer all questions a child may have without lying, and use words a child can understand.
Stay positive and focus on how things will get better.
Know when to seek professional help for children. Significant behavioral changes, particularly those lasting for longer periods of time, may indicate that a child is struggling (Evans & Wiens, 2004).
Bouncing Back: Resilience in Disaster Situations
People who go through a disaster often experience symptoms of distress, such as depression and anxiety. Usually these symptoms subside over time, but can be longer with technological disasters. If individuals have been feeling very distressed for more than six months to a year, and if the symptoms are negatively impacting his or her ability to function, it is important to seek help from a health care provider or a counselor.
Some research on disasters shows that the individual's belief in the ability to cope is more important for a resilient outcome than concrete coping strategies (McGinn & Spindel, 2007). Children have a natural tendency toward resilience, especially at younger ages, because they are not yet able to fully comprehend the implications of a disaster (Williams & Alexander, 2009). Although this is reassuring to parents, it's also important for parents to realize that when they are under stress, they may overlook children's symptoms. Parents play a key role in children's resilience, providing essential emotional support, reassurance, and safety.
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