Surviving the Stress After a Natural Disaster
The stress and devastation linger after a natural disaster. These tips can help survivors return to a normal way of life.

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Picture of damaged house due to natural disaster Surviving the Stress After a Natural Disaster

Natural disasters come in many forms. Fires, floods, or drought can leave behind a trail of destruction. One thing common to most disasters is overwhelming stress felt by those affected.

Stress impacts those who may have lost homes or loved ones. But even those who don't suffer these direct losses may feel anguish because of the devastation to their communities.

Effects of stress
Stress can cause both physical and emotional reactions, but how any one person will respond can be hard to predict. When disaster strikes, some people fall apart and can hardly move. Others spring into action and seem to pack their emotions away. Some find it hard to eat, while others turn to food for comfort. Anxiety may make it hard to sleep or may cause headaches or other symptoms, and it may worsen conditions that already exist. Some people get sick because their defenses are down.

If you have been affected by a disaster, you can expect you'll have a range of emotions, whether they start right away or later on. Many people will feel anger that so much was taken from them. Grief will strike those who lost friends, family members, beloved pets, or a lifetime of treasured possessions. Others may experience guilt if their home or family survived, but others nearby did not.

First steps to recovery
Recovering from a disaster is a long process, both mentally and physically. These steps may help you get started.

  • At first, just put one foot in front of the other. It's easy to get overwhelmed if you take on too much at once. Put aside difficult long-term issues for now. Deal with what's most important today or this week. Expand your scope when you feel able to.
  • Take care of your health. Be sure to eat regularly, get as much rest as you can, and drink fluids to avoid dehydration. Take any prescribed medicines.
  • Try to get back to your routine. Go to bed and get up around the same time each day, if possible. Have meals at your usual times. Get back to work or school when you can.
  • Reach out to others. Spend time with people you care about. Tell your story and listen to theirs.
  • Grieve your losses. Cry when you need to. Rant if it helps. Let your emotions out and urge your loved ones to do the same. Expressing your feelings can help you heal.
  • Get professional help if you need it. Sometimes, the emotional reaction to a stressful event can be too much to deal with on your own. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. It just means you're human.

If you need help
If you have survived a disaster and need help, try the following sources:

  • The American Red Cross maintains a "Safe and Well" list where you can list your status and search for family and friends. Go to https://disastersafe.redcross.org.
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) website has general information on dealing with emergencies. Check the website at www.fema.gov or call 1-800-621-FEMA.
  • The U.S. Department of Labor helps people who've survived disasters get unemployment benefits, find jobs, and get job training. In some cases, it provides grant money to pay people to help with disaster cleanup and recovery. Look on the website at www.dol.gov or call 1-866-4-USA-DOL (1-866-487-2365).

If you want to help
There are many ways you can help in the wake of a disaster:

  • Give blood. Check with local hospitals or blood banks, or call the American Red Cross at 1-800-448-3543.
  • Volunteer. The nonprofit VolunteerMatch can help you find opportunities in your area using their Emergency Response map. Check the website at www.volunteermatch.org.
  • Give money or goods. Check with trusted organizations in your area to find out what supplies are needed and where to take them, or how to make a cash donation.FEMA supports the AidMatrix Network, which can help you find nonprofit organizations in your area (www.aidmatrix.org/fema).
  • Donate pet food and supplies. After a disaster, animal shelters are often overwhelmed with injured, lost, or abandoned pets. Contact your local Humane Society to find out what goods are needed.
By Lila Havens, Staff Writer
Created on 10/26/2007
Updated on 06/03/2011
Sources:
  • American Psychological Association. Managing traumatic stress: tips for recovering from disasters and other traumatic events.
  • Freedy JR, Simpson WM. Disaster-related physical and mental health: a role for the family physician. American Family Physician. 2007;75(6):841-846.
  • Federal Emergency Management Agency. Coping with stress caused by natural disasters.
  • Concordia University-Saint Paul. Surviving a natural disaster: The emotional toll.
Copyright © OptumHealth.
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