Emotional distress can happen before and after a disaster. Coping strategies include preparation, self-care, and identifying support systems.
People can experience a wide range of emotions before and after a disaster or traumatic event. There’s no right or wrong way to feel. However, it’s important to find healthy ways to cope when these events happen.
Take Care of Yourself and Your Loved Ones
Eating a healthy diet, avoiding the use of drugs and alcohol, and getting regular exercise can reduce stress and anxiety. Activities as simple as taking a walk, stretching, and deep breathing can help relieve stress.
- Limit your consumption of news. We live in a society where the news is available to us 24 hours a day via television, radio, and the Internet. The constant replay of news stories about a disaster or traumatic event can increase stress and anxiety and make some people relive the event over and over. Reduce the amount of news you watch and/or listen to, and engage in relaxing activities to help you heal and move on.
- Get enough “good” sleep. Some people have difficulty falling asleep after a disaster, or wake up throughout the night. If you have trouble sleeping, only go to bed when you are ready to sleep, avoid using cell phones or laptops in bed, and avoid drinking caffeine or alcohol at least one hour before going to bed. If you wake up and can’t fall back to sleep, try writing what’s on your mind in a journal or on a sheet of paper.
- Establish and maintain a routine. Try to eat meals at regular times and put yourself on a sleep schedule to ensure an adequate amount of rest. Include a positive or fun activity in your schedule that you can look forward to each day or week. Schedule exercise into your daily routine as well, if possible.
- Avoid making major life decisions. Doing things like switching jobs or careers can already be stressful and are even harder to adjust to directly after a disaster.
- Understand there will be changes. Disasters can destroy homes, schools, and places of business and worship and can disrupt the lives of people living in affected areas for a long time. Sometimes, people lose loved ones or experience injuries, both physical and mental, that may last a lifetime. Some people may also experience a temporary or permanent loss of employment. For children, attending a new or temporary school may result in being separated from peers, or after-school activities may be disrupted.
Prepare for a Disaster
Most disasters strike without warning, while other kinds of disasters like hurricanes and tropical storms are tracked as they approach landfall. Warnings and constant news coverage may cause some anxiety. Preparedness is a coping strategy. Taking actions to prepare for the disaster will allow you to focus on what you are in control of, even if you feel helpless. These feelings of fear or anxiety may become more intense as security personnel or emergency services issue disaster alerts, lockdown notices, or other warnings through television, radio, social media, or text messages.
To help restore your peace of mind, stock a basic disaster kit with the following items:
- At least one gallon of water per person in your household, per day, for at least three days for drinking and sanitation
- At least a three-day supply of non-perishable food
- A battery-operated or hand-crank radio
- Extra batteries
- First aid kit
- Cell phone with charger
- Ready.gov provides suggestions for your family’s disaster kit, as well as other resources to help prepare you, your family, and even your pets.
- The American Red Cross offers preparedness checklists for natural and human-caused disasters in several languages.
- For first responders and recovery workers, SAMHSA provides a Disaster Kit.
Ask for Help
Warning signs of stress are normal, short-term reactions to life’s unexpected challenges. However, it is important to recognize when you or others experience emotional distress that is persistent and becomes difficult to manage.
- Find a local support group. In a group setting led by trained and experienced professionals, people who have shared a similar experience can exchange thoughts, feelings, and ideas on how to get through difficult times. Support groups provide a safe place for people to find comfort in knowing they are not alone.
- Reach out to family and friends. Talking to someone you trust about your feelings without fear of judgment may offer some relief. Family and friends can be a great resource for support. Your family and friends may have also survived the disaster and understand the emotions you are experiencing. It’s also a good idea to speak with friends who were not involved, because they can be objective and provide additional support.
- Speak with a financial adviser. The loss of a home or job or being unable to work after a disaster can be an overwhelming financial burden people feel they have to struggle with alone. Financial advisers don’t immediately come to mind as a resource after a disaster, but they should be among the first people you call when developing a strategy to rebuild your life. Seeking help from a financial adviser can ease the stress and point you in the direction of other helpful resources or programs tailored to your situation.
If you or your loved ones continue to have feelings of anxiety, fear, and anger for two weeks or more, with no improvement, it’s best to seek professional help. Call or text the Disaster Distress Helpline to locate services and speak with trained crisis counselors who are ready to assist you.
Additional Resources About Coping
- Coping with Stress After a Traumatic Event – 2013 (PDF | 866 KB) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Coping with Stress During Infectious Disease Outbreaks – 2014
- Taking Care of Your Emotional Health After a Disaster – 2009 (PDF | 307 KB) at the American Red Cross
- Tips for Survivors of a Disaster or Other Traumatic Event – 2013