Coping With Disaster | Mental Health America

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Coping With Disaster

A disaster of any size will cause unusual stress in people who have been directly and indirectly impacted by it.  Each person will react differently and a range of responses to a disaster are normal and to be expected.  Emotional responses to disasters can appear immediately or sometimes months later.

Understanding what you’re feeling and taking positive steps can help you cope with this disaster. Here are some common responses to disasters:

Responses to Disaster

  • Disbelief and shock
  • Fear and anxiety about the future
  • Disorientation, apathy and emotional numbing
  • Irritability and anger
  • Sadness and depression
  • Feeling powerless
  • Extreme hunger or lack of appetite
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Crying for “no apparent reason”
  • Headaches and stomach problems
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Excessive drinking or drug use

Most of these reactions will decrease as time passes and you focus attention on daily activities. Because everyone experiences stress differently, don’t compare your progress with others around you or judge other people’s reactions and emotions.

What You Can Do

  • Talk about it. Not expressing your feelings will keep you from being able to work through what happened. By talking with others, you will relieve stress and realize that other people share your feelings.
  • Get plenty of rest and exercise. Remember to eat well.  Avoid excessive drinking and risk-taking activities.   
  • Spend time with your family.  If you have any children, encourage them to discuss their concerns and feelings with you.
  • As soon as it feels comfortable, go back to your usual routine.  
  • Do things that you find relaxing and soothing.
  • Recall other times you have experienced strong emotions and how they were resolved. 
  • Do something positive that will help you gain a greater sense of control (for example, give blood, take a first aid class or donate food or clothing).
  • If you feel overwhelmed by the disaster, ask for help. It’s not a sign of weakness. Talk with a trusted relative, friend, social worker, or clergy member.

If you have strong feelings that won’t go away or if you are troubled for longer than four to six weeks, you may want to seek professional help.  People who have existing mental health problems and those who have survived past trauma may also want to check in with a mental health care professional.  Being unable to manage your responses to the disaster and resume your regular activities may be symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a real and treatable illness.   Help is available.

Additional Resources

The Disaster Distress Helpline (DDH) is a national hotline dedicated to providing year-round disaster crisis counseling. This toll-free, multilingual, crisis support service is available 24/7 via telephone (1-800-985-5990) and SMS (text ‘TalkWithUs’ to 66746) to residents in the U.S. and its territories who are experiencing emotional distress related to natural or human-caused disasters. Callers and texters are connected to trained and caring professionals from a network of crisis centers across the country. Helpline staff provide supportive counseling, including information on common stress reactions and healthy coping, as well as referrals to local disaster-related resources for follow-up care and support.

Visit for additional information and resources related to disaster behavioral health.

500 Montgomery Street, Suite 820
 Alexandria, VA 22314

Phone (703) 684.7722

Toll Free (800) 969.6642

Fax (703) 684.5968

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