Psychological Response to Disaster

Disasters such as car crashes, community violence, explosions, fires, floods, and tornadoes are typically unexpected, sudden, and overwhelming. Help is available to cope with these events.    

Information for Survivors

It is common for people who have experienced disaster to have strong emotional reactions. There is no right or wrong way to feel. Understanding responses to distressing events can help you cope effectively with your feelings, thoughts and behaviors, and help you along the path to recovery.

What are common reactions and responses to disaster?
  • Intense or unpredictable feelings. You may be anxious, nervous, overwhelmed, or grief-stricken. You may also feel more irritable or moody than usual.
  • Changes to 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 You might also become withdrawn, isolated or disengaged from your usual social activities.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.
How do I cope?

Research shows 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.
  • 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.
When should I seek professional help?


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.

Sources: American Psychological Association and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Tip Sheets

Information for Professionals

Behavioral Health Disaster Response App

The free Behavioral Health Disaster Response App from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration makes it easy to provide quality support to survivors. Users can navigate pre-deployment preparation, on-the-ground assistance, post-deployment resources, and more. Users also can share resources, like tips for helping survivors cope, and find local behavioral health services. And, self-care support for responders is available at all stages of deployment. Download the app today from the Apple App Store and Google Play.

Disaster Technical Assistance Center

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's Disaster Technical Assistance Center helps states, tribes, and local providers plan for and respond to behavioral health needs after a disaster.

Tip Sheets

 

Disaster Distress Helpline

The Disaster Distress Helpline is a national hotline operated by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration that provides counseling for people who are experiencing emotional distress related to any natural or human-caused disaster. It is a toll-free, multilingual, and confidential service. Call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746.

 

Related Topics

Last Revised: September 24, 2018