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.
General Disaster Response and Recovery Information
- Tips for Survivors of a Disaster or Other Traumatic Event: Managing Stress —This SAMHSA tip sheet gives stress prevention and management tips for dealing with the effects of trauma, mass violence, or terrorism. It lists tips to relieve stress, describes how to know when to seek professional help, and provides accompanying resources. This tip sheet is also available in Spanish.
- Psychological First Aid (PFA)—Developed jointly by the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, PFA is an evidence-informed modular approach for assisting people in the immediate aftermath of disaster and terrorism: to reduce initial distress, and to foster short- and long-term adaptive functioning.
- Be Red Cross Ready: Taking Care of Your Emotional Health after a Disaster (PDF | 307 KB)—This fact sheet from the American Red Cross explains normal reactions to a disaster, what a survivor can do to cope with these emotions, and where to seek additional help if needed.
Incidents of Mass Violence: Specific Information
- Coping With Grief After Community Violence—This SAMHSA tip sheet introduces some of the signs of grief and anger after an incident of community violence, provides useful information about to how to cope with grief, and offers tips for helping children deal with grief.
- Disaster-Specific Resources: Mass Violence—This SAMHSA Disaster Technical Assistance Center (DTAC) Disaster Behavioral Health Information Series installment is a collection of resources focused on preparedness and response for specific types of disasters, including mass violence, riots, and trauma.
- Incidents of Mass Violence—The SAMHSA Disaster Distress Helpline supports survivors, family members, responders, and recovery workers who are affected by incidents of mass violence and other disasters. Information on this web page includes a list of risk factors for distress, information on lockdown notices and other warnings, and additional resources for coping.
- Effects of Traumatic Stress After Mass Violence, Terror, or Disaster—This online article from the National Center for PTSD describes the emotional, cognitive, physical, and interpersonal reactions that disaster survivors may experience and discusses the potentially severe stress symptoms that may lead to lasting posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders, or depression. The article also presents information on how survivors can reduce their risk of psychological difficulties and recover from disaster stress.
Resources for Disaster Responders
- Disaster Responders Disaster Behavioral Health Information Series (DBHIS) Installment—This installment of the SAMHSA Disaster Technical Assistance Center's DBHIS includes resources for people who respond to disasters, including human-caused disasters such as incidents of mass violence. It includes links to materials about how responders can support their own mental health while helping others, organizations and agencies that support disaster responders, and information specifically for law enforcement.
- Psychological First Aid for First Responders: Tips for Emergency and Disaster Response Workers—This SAMHSA tip sheet provides first responders with information on how to address people for the first time after a disaster and how to calmly communicate and promote safety.
- Tips for Disaster Responders: Preventing and Managing Stress—This SAMHSA tip sheet helps disaster response workers prevent and manage stress. It includes strategies to help responders prepare for their assignment, use stress-reducing precautions during the assignment, and manage stress in the recovery phase of the assignment. This tip sheet is also available in Spanish.
- Disaster Mental Health for Responders: Key Principles, Issues and Questions—This Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) web page presents information that may be helpful to disaster survivors and first responders during and after a disaster. The page opens with guiding principles and also features survivor needs and common responses to disasters, signs that someone may need a mental health referral, common signs of stress among disaster responders, and examples of ways to care for yourself after a disaster.
- Understanding Compassion Fatigue: Explains the causes and signs of compassion fatigue, the burnout and secondary trauma a disaster response worker can experience. Offers self-care tips for coping with compassion fatigue and discusses compassion satisfaction as a protective tool. This is also available in Spanish .
Traumatic Stress and Retraumatization Resources
- Effects of Traumatic Stress After Mass Violence, Terror, or Disaster—This National Center for PTSD web page describes the reactions to disaster that survivors may experience and discusses the potentially severe stress symptoms that may lead to lasting posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders, or depression. Information on how survivors can reduce their risk of psychological difficulties and recover from disaster stress is also provided.
- Media Coverage of Traumatic Events: Research on Effects—The National Center for PTSD presents information on the effects of intense media exposure following a disaster. This article describes the association between watching media coverage of traumatic events and stress symptoms. It also offers guidance to help providers avoid retraumatizing children and their parents with whom they work.
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
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.