Coping Tips for Traumatic Events and Disasters
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.
- Take care of yourself. Try to eat healthy, avoid using alcohol and drugs, and get some exercise when you can—even a walk around the block can make a difference.
- Reach out to friends and family. Talk to someone you trust about how you are doing.
- If you have children, talk to them. They may feel scared, angry, sad, worried, and confused. Let them know it’s okay to talk about what’s on their mind. Role model healthy coping.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Take care of pets or get outside into nature when it’s safe. Nature and animals can help us to feel better when we are down. See if you can volunteer at a local animal shelter—they may need help after a disaster. Once it’s safe to return to public parks or natural areas, find a quiet spot to sit in or go for a hike.
- Know when to ask for help. Signs of stress can be normal, short-term reactions to any of life’s unexpected events—not only after surviving a disaster, but also after a death in the family, the loss of a job, or a breakup. It’s important to pay attention to what’s going on with you or with someone you care about, because what may seem like “everyday stress” can actually be: depression (including the thoughts of suicide), anxiety, or alcohol/drug abuse.
Those at Risk
Disasters have the potential to cause emotional distress.
Some are more at risk than others:
- Survivors living or working in the impacted areas (youth & adults)
- Loved ones of victims
- First Responders, Rescue & Recovery Workers
Stress, anxiety, and depression are common reactions after a disaster.
Warning signs of distress may include:
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Stomachaches or headaches
- Anger, feeling edgy or lashing out at others
- Overwhelming sadness
- Worrying a lot of the time; feeling guilty but not sure why
- Feeling like you have to keep busy
- Lack of energy or always feeling tired
- Drinking alcohol, smoking or using tobacco more than usual; using illegal drugs
- Eating too much or too little
- Not connecting with others
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.
References and Relevant Resources
General Disaster Response and Recovery Information
- Tips for Survivors of a Disaster or Other Traumatic Event: Managing Stress—This tip sheet is also available in Spanish.
- Psychological First Aid (PFA)
- Be Red Cross Ready: Taking Care of Your Emotional Health after a Disaster (PDF | 307 KB)
Incidents of Mass Violence: Specific Information
- Coping With Grief After Community Violence
- Disaster-Specific Resources: Mass Violence
- Incidents of Mass Violence
- Effects of Traumatic Stress After Mass Violence, Terror, or Disaster
Resources for Disaster Responders
- Disaster Responders Disaster Behavioral Health Information Series (DBHIS) Installment
- Psychological First Aid for First Responders: Tips for Emergency and Disaster Response Workers
- Tips for Disaster Responders: Preventing and Managing Stress—This tip sheet is also available in Spanish.
- Disaster Mental Health for Responders: Key Principles, Issues and Questions
- Understanding Compassion Fatigue—This is also available in Spanish.
Traumatic Stress and Retraumatization Resources
- Effects of Traumatic Stress After Mass Violence, Terror, or Disaster
- Media Coverage of Traumatic Events: Research on Effects
National Child Traumatic Stress Network Resources (NCTSN)
The NCTSN has multiple resources to support children, youth, families and community response efforts:
- Psychological Impact of the Recent Shooting
- Talking to Children about the Shooting
- Helping Teens with Traumatic Grief: Tips for Caregivers
- Helping Young Children with Traumatic Grief: Tips for Caregivers
- Tip Sheet for Youth Talking to Journalists about the Shooting
- Helping School-Age Children with Traumatic Grief: Tips for Caregivers
- Helping Youth after Community Trauma: Tips for Educators
- Parent Guidelines for Helping Youth after the Recent Shooting
- En Español [Guía para los Padres Para Ayudar a Los Jóvenes Después de un Tiroteo Reciente]
- After a Crisis: Helping Young Children Heal
- Parents Tips for Helping Preschool-Aged Children after Disasters
- Parents Tips for Helping School-Aged Children after Disasters
- Restoring a Sense of Safety in the Aftermath of a Shooting: Tips for Parents and Professionals
SAMHSA’s Disaster Distress Helpline provides 24/7, 365-day-a-year crisis counseling and support to people experiencing emotional distress related to natural or human-caused disasters.
If you are feeling alone and having thoughts of suicide—whether or not you are in crisis—or know someone who is, don’t remain silent. Talk to someone you can trust through the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. Call or text 988 or chat (with someone at) 988lifeline.org.