Main Content

Coping with Disaster

This page offers disaster survivors information regarding dealing with the emotional effects of the event. Disasters are upsetting experiences for everyone involved. The emotional toll that disaster brings can sometimes be even more devastating than the financial strains of damage and loss of home, business or personal property.

Understand Disaster Events

Children, senior citizens, people with access or functional needs, and people for whom English is not their first language may have an especially difficult time following a disaster. Children may become afraid and some elderly people may seem disoriented at first. People with access or functional needs may require additional assistance.

Seek crisis counseling if you or someone in your family is experiencing issues with disaster-caused stress or difficulty coping.

Understand the individual effects of a disaster.

  • Many people who experience a disaster are affected by it in some way.
  • It is normal to feel anxious about your own safety and that of your family and close friends.
  • Profound sadness, grief, and anger are normal reactions to an abnormal event.
  • Acknowledging your feelings can help you recover.
  • Focusing on your strengths and abilities may help you heal.
  • Focusing on your strengths and abilities helps you heal.
  • Accepting help from community programs and resources is healthy.
  • Everyone has different needs and different ways of coping.

Contact local faith-based organizations, voluntary agencies, or professional counselors for counseling. Additionally, FEMA and state and local governments of the affected area may provide crisis counseling assistance. The Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) Disaster Distress Helpline is a national hotline dedicated to providing year-round immediate crisis counseling for individuals experiencing emotional distress related to any natural or human-caused disaster.

Recognize Signs of Disaster-Caused Stress

Seek counseling if you or a family member are experiencing disaster-caused stress. When adults have the following signs, they might need crisis counseling or stress management assistance:

  • Difficulty communicating thoughts
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Difficulty maintaining balance in their lives
  • Low threshold of frustration
  • Increased use of drugs/alcohol
  • Limited attention span
  • Poor work performance
  • Headaches/stomach problems
  • Tunnel vision/muffled hearing
  • Colds or flu-like symptoms
  • Disorientation or confusion
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Reluctance to leave home
  • Depression, sadness
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Mood-swings and easy bouts of crying
  • Overwhelming guilt and self-doubt
  • Fear of crowds, strangers, or being alone

Easing Disaster-Caused Stress

Talk to someone and seek professional help for disaster-caused stress. The following are ways to ease post-disaster stress:

  • Talk with someone about your feelings - anger, sorrow, and other emotions - even though it may be difficult.
  • Seek help from professional counselors who deal with post-disaster stress.
  • Do not feel responsible for the disaster or get frustrated because you cannot help directly during rescue efforts.
  • Take steps to promote your own physical and emotional healing by healthy eating, rest, exercise, relaxation, and meditation.
  • Maintain a normal family and daily routine, limiting demanding responsibilities on yourself and your family.
  • Spend time with family and friends.
  • Participate in memorials.
  • Use existing support groups of family, friends, and religious institutions.

Ensure you are ready for future events by restocking your disaster supplies kits and updating your family disaster plan. Ready.gov/kids provides families with preparedness resources. Doing these positive actions can be comforting.

Helping Kids Cope with Disaster

Disasters can leave children and teens feeling frightened, confused, and insecure. Their responses can be quite varied. It's important to not only recognize these reactions, but also help children cope with their emotions. Whether a child has personally experienced trauma, saw the event on television, or heard it discussed by adults, it is important for parents and teachers to be informed and ready to help if reactions to stress begin to occur.

  • Encorage dialogue and answer questions
    • Listen to your kids. Ask them about their feelings and validate their concerns. When they ask questions, give just the amount of information you feel your child needs.
  • Limit media exposure
    • Intense media coverage of disasters can frighten young children and disturb teenagers as well. If your children watch TV or use the internet, try to be available to talk with them and answer questions.
  • Make time for them and find support
    • Help kids understand that they are safe and secure by talking, playing, and doing other family activities with them. Build support networks with friends, family, and community organizations to help you cope, which can also help your children cope.
  • Keep to a routine
    • Help your children feel as if they still have a sense of structure, which can make them feel more relaxed. When schools and childcare open again, help children return to normal activities like going to class, sports, and play groups.

Risk Factors

For many kids, reactions to disasters are short-term. But some children can be at risk for more long-term psychological distress.

Three risk factors for this longer-lasting response are:

  • Direct exposure to the disaster such as being evacuated, observing injuries of others, or experiencing injury.
  • Grief following the death or serious injury of family or friends.
  • Ongoing stress from secondary effects, such as temportary housing, loss of social networks, loss of personal property, or parent's unemployment.

Additional resources can be found at Ready.gov Kids - Helping Children Cope.

Last Updated: 
01/13/2020 - 16:02