Coping with Natural Disasters

If your community has been hit by a natural disaster, you’re probably trying to make sense of what happened and deal with the stress of the situation. These events create a tremendous amount of stress and anxiety for those directly and indirectly affected. In the days and weeks following the disaster, you may begin to have some of these common reactions:

Common Reactions: 
  • Disbelief and shock 
  • Fear and anxiety about the future 
  • Disorientation; difficulty making decisions or concentrating 
  • Apathy and emotional numbing 
  • Nightmares and reoccurring thoughts about the event
  • Irritability and anger
  • Sadness and depression
  • Feeling powerless
  • Changes in eating patterns; loss of appetite or overeating
  • Crying for “no apparent reason"
  • Headaches, back pains and stomach problems
  • Difficulty sleeping or falling asleep
  • Increased use of alcohol and drugs
Tips for Coping

It is ‘normal’ to have difficulty managing your feelings after major traumatic events. However, if you don’t deal with the stress, it can be harmful to your mental and physical health. Here are some tips for coping in these difficult times: 

  • Talk about it. By talking with others about the event, you can relieve stress and realize that others share your feelings.
  • Spend time with friends and family. They can help you through this tough time. If your family lives outside the area, stay in touch by phone. If you have any children, encourage them to share their concerns and feelings about the disaster with you.
  • Take care of yourself. Get plenty of rest and exercise, and eat properly. If you smoke or drink coffee, try to limit your intake, since nicotine and caffeine can also add to your stress.
  • Limit exposure to images of the disaster. Watching or reading news about the event over and over again will only increase your stress.
  • Find time for activities you enjoy. Read a book, go for a walk, catch a movie or do something else you find enjoyable. These healthy activities can help you get your mind off the disaster and keep the stress in check.
  • Take one thing at a time. For people under stress, an ordinary workload can sometimes seem unbearable. Pick one urgent task and work on it. Once you accomplish that task, choose the next one. “Checking off” tasks will give you a sense of accomplishment and make things feel less overwhelming.
  • Do something positive. Give blood, prepare “care packages” for people who have lost relatives or their homes or jobs, or volunteer in a rebuilding effort. Helping other people can give you a sense of purpose in a situation that feels ‘out of your control.’ 
  • Avoid drugs and excessive drinking. Drugs and alcohol may temporarily seem to remove stress, but in the long run they generally create additional problems that compound the stress you were already feeling.
  • Ask for help when you need it. If your feelings do not go away or are so intense that they interfere with your ability to function in daily life, talk with a trusted relative, friend, doctor or spiritual advisor about getting help. Make an appointment with a mental health professional to discuss how well you are coping with the recent events. You could also join a support group. Don’t try to cope alone. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness.

Talking to Children about Disasters

Every year, a number of areas are affected by tornados, flooding and other disasters. Understandably, many young children may feel frightened and confused. Fortunately, most children, even those exposed to trauma, are quite resilient.

By creating an open environment where they feel free to ask questions, we can help them cope with stressful events and experiences, and reduce the risk of lasting emotional difficulties. Although these may be difficult conversations, they are important.

Create an open and supportive environment where children know they can ask questions. However, it's best not to force children to talk about things unless and until they're ready.

Give children honest answers and information. Children will usually know, or eventually find out, if you're "making things up." It may affect their ability to trust you or your reassurances in the future.

Use words and concepts children can understand. Gear your explanations to the child's age, language, and developmental level.

Be prepared to repeat information and explanations several times. Some information may be hard to accept or understand. Asking the same question over and over may also be a way for a child to ask for reassurance.

Acknowledge and validate the child's thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Let them know that you think their questions and concerns are important and appropriate.

Remember that children tend to personalize situations. For example, they may worry about their own safety and the safety of immediate family members, friends and neighbors.

Be reassuring, but don't make unrealistic promises.

Help children find ways to express themselves. Some children may not want to talk about their thoughts, feelings, or fears. They may be more comfortable drawing pictures, playing with toys, or writing stories or poems.

It's a good opportunity to show children that when something scary happens, there are people to help.

Children learn from watching their parents and teachers. They will be very interested in how you respond to events. They also learn from listening to your conversations with other adults.

Don't let children watch too much television with frightening images. The repetition of such scenes can be disturbing and confusing. Although parents and teachers may follow the news and the daily events with close scrutiny, many children just want to be children.

Monitor for physical symptoms including headaches and stomachaches. Many children express anxiety through physical aches and pains. An increase in such symptoms without apparent medical cause may be a sign that a child is feeling anxious or overwhelmed.

Consider seeking help from a mental health professional if a child:

  • is preoccupied with questions or concerns about fires or other natural disasters;
  • has ongoing sleep disturbances
  • has intrusive thoughts or worries; or
  • has recurring fears about death, leaving parents, or going to school.

Helpful Resources:

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
FEMA for Kids
For Kids, Natural Disasters Can Whip Up Worries
Tornadoes, hurricanes and children -American Psychological Association

Brochures:

Tips for Talking to Children after a Traumatic Event  (.pdf 449kb)
Tips for Survivors of a Traumatic Event  (.pdf, 455kb)