How to Recover Emotionally from a Natural Disaster.

How to Recover Emotionally from a Natural Disaster.

In a short amount of time, our world has been exposed to traumatic events of devastating fires, enormous mudslides, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, monsoons…  It can feel like the world as we know it is ending moving you to feeling unsafe, ungrounded, anxious, and stressed. Traumatic events create uncertainty, grief, guilt, fear, as well as, dealing with the heartbreak of loss that occurs. So, to help you cope and when ready recover from a natural disaster, I’m sharing a combination of two articles from the American Psychological Association, one titled, Recovering emotionally from disaster and the other The Trauma that arises from natural disaster.

(Note: You don’t have to experience the event directly to be traumatized by it.)

The American Psychological Association defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster.” However, Peter Levine (a well-known psychological trauma theorist) characterizes trauma not by the event but by one’s reactions to it and symptoms. He explains that “any overwhelming and distressing experience” can cause trauma and that trauma is only recognizable its symptoms.

There are various types of common traumatic events, all known to lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). One type of trauma results from natural disasters such as earthquakes, tornados or hurricanes, forest fires, floods, volcanic eruptions, landslides, or tsunamis. These types of experiences are particularly insidious because they tend to traumatize large populations of people at once, and can result in epidemics of Survivor Guilt and other PTSD symptoms.

Like many causes of trauma, natural disasters can be sudden and overwhelming. The most immediate and typical reaction to a calamity is shock, which at first manifests as numbness or denial. Quickly—or eventually—shock can give way to an overemotional state that often includes high levels of anxiety, guilt or depression.

People might have lost their loved ones or their homes. As a result, they may feel helpless, they may have to live in camps or shelters without support from relatives or friends for extended time periods. However, living with other survivors can also be a time to reconnect, talk about the event with others, and help to reframe the event. Being able to help another survivor can reduce helplessness, and may start the healing process.

Natural disasters, in particular, can bring victims a feeling of being betrayed by “their god,” which can result in a loss of faith. Making peace with “the divine” might be one step toward healing and gaining faith (which can be crucial to health) back.

Disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, transportation accidents or wildfires are typically unexpected, sudden and overwhelming. For many people, there are no outwardly visible signs of physical injury, but there can be nonetheless an emotional toll. It is common for people who have experienced a disaster to have strong emotional reactions. Understanding responses to distressing events can help you cope effectively with your feelings, thoughts and behaviors, and help you along the path to recovery.

natural disaster

What are common reactions and responses to disaster?

Following a disaster, people frequently feel stunned, disoriented or unable to integrate distressing information. Once these initial reactions subside, people can experience a variety of thoughts and behaviors. Common responses can be:

  • Intense or unpredictable feelings. You may be anxious, nervous, overwhelmed or grief-stricken. You may also feel more irritable or moody than usual.
  • Changes in thoughts and behavior patterns. You might have repeated and vivid memories of the event. These memories may occur for no apparent reason and may lead to physical reactions such as rapid heartbeat or sweating. It may be difficult to concentrate or make decisions. Sleep and eating patterns also can be disrupted — some people may overeat and oversleep, while others experience a loss of sleep and loss of appetite.
  • Sensitivity to environmental factors. Sirens, loud noises, burning smells or other environmental sensations may stimulate memories of the disaster creating heightened anxiety. These “triggers” may be accompanied by fears that the stressful event will be repeated.
  • Strained interpersonal relationships. Increased conflict, such as more frequent disagreements with family members and coworkers, can occur. You might also become withdrawn, isolated or disengaged from your usual social activities.
  • Stress-related physical symptoms. Headaches, nausea and chest pain may occur and could require medical attention. Preexisting medical conditions could be affected by disaster-related stress.

natural disaster

How do I cope?

Fortunately, research shows that most people are resilient and over time are able to bounce back from tragedy. It is common for people to experience stress in the immediate aftermath, but within a few months, most people are able to resume functioning as they did prior to the disaster. It is important to remember that resilience and recovery are the norm, not prolonged distress.

There are a number of steps you can take to build emotional well-being and gain a sense of control following a disaster, including the following:

  • Give yourself time to adjust. Anticipate that this will be a difficult time in your life. Allow yourself to mourn the losses you have experienced and try to be patient with changes in your emotional state.
  • Ask for support from people who care about you and who will listen and empathize with your situation. Social support is a key component to disaster recovery. Family and friends can be an important resource. You can find support and common ground from those who’ve also survived the disaster. You may also want to reach out to others not involved who may be able to provide greater support and objectivity.
  • Communicate your experience. Express what you are feeling in whatever ways feel comfortable to you — such as talking with family or close friends, keeping a diary or engaging in a creative activity (e.g., drawing, molding clay, etc.).
  • Find a local support group led by appropriately trained and experienced professionals. Support groups are frequently available for survivors. Group discussion can help you realize that you are not alone in your reactions and emotions. Support group meetings can be especially helpful for people with limited personal support systems.
  • Engage in healthy behaviors to enhance your ability to cope with excessive stress. Eat well-balanced meals and get plenty of rest. If you experience ongoing difficulties with sleep, you may be able to find some relief through relaxation techniques. Avoid alcohol and drugs because they can be a numbing diversion that could detract from as well as delay active coping and moving forward from the disaster.
  • Establish or reestablish routines. This can include eating meals at regular times, sleeping and waking on a regular cycle, or following an exercise program. Build in some positive routines to have something to look forward to during these distressing times, like pursuing a hobby, walking through an attractive park or neighborhood, or reading a good book.
  • Avoid making major life decisions. Switching careers or jobs and other important decisions tend to be highly stressful in their own right and even harder to take on when you’re recovering from a disaster.

In addition to these recommendations, APA’s Road to Resilience brochure describes steps that you can take to build resilience — the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.

natural disaster

When should I seek professional help?

If you notice persistent feelings of distress or hopelessness and you feel like you are barely able to get through your daily responsibilities and activities, consult with a licensed mental health professional such as a psychologist. Psychologists are trained to help people address emotional reactions to a disaster such as disbelief, stress, anxiety, and grief and make a plan for moving forward. To find a psychologist in your area, visit APA’s Psychologist Locator.

I am here for you

Thanks to psychologists Kevin Rowell, Ph.D., and Rebecca Thomley, PsyD, for their assistance with this article.

Revised August 2013

Resources

Bonanno, G. A., Galea, S., Bucciarelli, A., & Vlahov, D. (2007). What predicts psychological resilience after disaster? The role of demographics, resources, and life stress. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology75 (5), 671. doi: 10.1037/0022-006X.75.5.671

Bonanno, G. A., Papa, A., & O’Neill, K. (2001). Loss and human resilience. Applied and Preventive Psychology10 (3), 193-206. doi: 10.1016/S0962-1849(01)80014-7

Butler, L. D., Koopman, C., Azarow, J., Blasey, C. M., Magdalene, J. C., DiMiceli, S., … & Spiegel, D. (2009). Psychosocial predictors of resilience after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease197(4), 266-273. doi: 10.1097/NMD.0b013e31819d9334

Silver, R. C., Holman, E. A., McIntosh, D. N., Poulin, M., & Gil-Rivas, V. (2002). Nationwide longitudinal study of psychological responses to September 11. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association288 (10), 1235-1244. doi: 10.1001/jama.288.10.1235

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