When we think about the aftermath of a disaster, we often picture the devastating physical damage it leaves behind. Rows of homes underwater, roads turned into rivers, entire neighborhoods reduced to piles of rubble. The destruction caused by natural disasters, whether they come in the form of floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, or wildfires, can be catastrophic.
So it comes as no surprise, then, that we also tend to think of disaster recovery in terms of repairing the damage we can see – things like clearing debris and rebuilding homes and infrastructure. But there‘s also the damage we can’t see.
Long after the skies have cleared, what remains are the storms within – the lasting psychological impact of disasters on individuals, families, and communities. Disasters can be traumatic experiences that take a toll on the emotional well-being of survivors, even if they aren’t hurt physically.
Immediate reactions like shock can turn into numbness and denial, which may then give way to anger, frustration, anxiety, depression, and despair. People may have lost their loved ones, their homes, and cherished keepsakes like family photos. An entire lifetime of memories can be swept away by a single storm. With these losses come grief, feelings of powerlessness, and other intense, unpredictable emotions.1
Some individuals report feeling guilty for surviving when others did not. Many also express fear and anxiety about the future. The physical, emotional, and financial burdens caused by disasters can generate high levels of stress, which have the potential to then manifest as physical symptoms such as headaches, nausea, and stomach pains.
Other common symptoms of trauma include trouble concentrating and making decisions, difficulty sleeping, and changes in appetite. People who feel overwhelmed by these experiences may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance abuse or other harmful behaviors.2
While these emotional effects of disasters are much harder to capture on camera or quantify in reports, they are every bit as real as the physical wreckage. It’s vital to address mental health as part of the recovery process – and we do.
Disaster recovery is a core part of FEMA’s mission, and to that end, we implement a crisis counseling program to provide mental health assistance in areas that have been declared a disaster.
We provide supplemental funding for crisis counseling to state mental health authorities through two grant mechanisms: (1) the Immediate Services Program, which provides funds for up to 60 days following a disaster declaration and (2) the Regular Services Program, which provides funding for up to nine months following a disaster declaration.
We partner with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Center for Mental Health Services to support survivors through community-based outreach and psychoeducational services.
Crisis counselors use short-term interventions that range from solution-focused approaches, like helping disaster survivors understand their benefits and fill out their paperwork, to more emotionally-focused ones, such as teaching individuals breathing exercises to better cope with stress and anxiety.
Our goal is to provide survivors with emotional support, help them understand their current situation and emotional responses, inform survivors about disaster recovery options and resources, mitigate stress by promoting healthy coping strategies, and foster resilience and empowerment within the community.
Whether you experienced a disaster firsthand or were indirectly affected by one, it’s important to take steps – even small ones – toward recovery. Here are some ways you can ease disaster-related stress and work toward emotional healing:
- Talk to someone about your feelings – like friends, family, and other survivors. In addition to receiving much-needed support, you may find that you are not alone in how you feel.
- Seek help from a professional counselor. Counseling can help you realize that sadness, anger, and grief are all normal reactions to a profoundly abnormal situation. It can also help you identify and focus on your strengths.
- Practice self-care and allow yourself the time and space to do something that soothes you (e.g., yoga, music, journaling).
- Take care of your physical health to improve your emotional health – get plenty of rest, exercise, and eat healthy.
- Do something positive that helps you gain a greater sense of control and empowerment (e.g., volunteer at a shelter or donate through a trusted organization).
- Update your family disaster plan and put together an emergency kit. While you can’t stop a disaster from happening, you’ll feel better knowing that you are better prepared for one.
- As soon as you’re able, go back to your daily routine for work, school, meals, etc., especially if you have children.
- Show yourself compassion, kindness, and patience. Everyone has different needs and different ways of coping. Don’t compare your progress with others around you and don’t be hard on yourself if you feel stuck. Even after a lot of time has passed, things like disaster anniversaries and media coverage might trigger painful memories, flashbacks, or other strong feelings.3
Above all else, if you feel overwhelmed, ask for help.
The Disaster Distress Helpline is a national hotline dedicated to providing year-round crisis counseling for individuals experiencing emotional distress related to any natural or human-caused disaster. Asking for help is never a sign of weakness.
Here at FEMA, we have the unique privilege of helping people after what is possibly the worst day of their lives. We’re here to help survivors and communities rebuild – physically and emotionally – after a disaster so they can emerge stronger than before. The road to recovery is long, hard, and seldom straightforward, but remember – you’re not in this alone.
- American Psychology Association’s “Recovering Emotionally from Disaster” webpage: http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/recovering-disasters.aspx
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration’s “Warning Signs and Risk Factors” webpage: https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/disaster-distress-helpline/warning-signs-risk-factors
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration’s “Anniversaries and Trigger Events” webpage: https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/disaster-distress-helpline/anniversaries-triggers