Managing Disaster-Related Stress

Normal life has a strong hold on us; it is what we are familiar with and understand. But this "normality" can change suddenly, radically, and painfully, bringing death, destruction, and dislocation with little or no warning. Prolonged and extensive disasters are a difficult challenge to the safety, security, health and wellness of our families and community. We may expect help to arrive almost immediately; this may not happen, circumstances can prevent it from happening.

3 Kinds of Reactions to a Disaster

Personality Changes

During and after a disaster, people may develop personality changes relating to trauma-related stress. They may experience anxiety attacks, have trouble sleeping and eating, feel on edge and brittle, be easily disturbed or upset, become over-protective of loved ones, experience emotional episodes (including crying), and suffer despair and a sense of hopelessness. They may feel so powerless to affect their situation that they are almost incapable of helping themselves. They may become angry and resentful, unable to make decisions, easily irritated, unable to focus on work, lacking the energy even for basic daily activities. They may be sad, depressed, and unwilling to confront the situation that brought about the disaster.


During and after a disaster, people may experience strong feelings of solidarity and bonding with their neighbors and others who have suffered the same situation. They may become very cooperative, generous, compassionate, helpful, and warm-hearted. People often demonstrate the ability to learn new skills very fast, and exhibit a lot of ingenuity and creativity in working around obstacles and managing chaotic situations. Humans are known for sacrificing themselves to save others, sometimes for members of their family, but also for complete strangers. We can work hard and smart when the need is there. Instead of giving into despair, we can become pro-active. People are very adaptable, even when changes are coming very fast and the stress is very grave.

Criminal Activity/Violence

During and after a disaster, some people take advantage of the suffering, distress, weakness, or problems of others. They profiteer on scarce goods, refuse to cooperate on necessary neighborhood projects, hinder rescue and repair efforts, and/or turn violent and criminal. Some disasters have been followed by violence and looting, and theft generally increases. Goods donated by humanitarian organizations may end up in the marketplaces at inflated prices. People can be rude, arrogant, intensified by the stress of a major traumatic event.

Child Response/Needs

Children are greatly affected by disasters; they will need extra realistic reassurances, but don't promise what you can not deliver. Expect them to be afraid. Four common fears are death, darkness, animals, and abandonment. Refusing to discuss such fears with children will only intensify their concerns. Encourage them to talk about their feelings or otherwise express them through activities such as play acting or painting. Their feelings won't go away if adults refuse to talk about them, if repressed, eventually they will come out, usually in a negative way. Pretending that problems don't exist only makes them worse.

Common Reactions

Common reactions to severe stress in kids include:
  • Feeling guilty or neglected
  • Getting upset easily
  • Headaches
  • Nightmares
  • Refusing to eat
  • Regression to earlier behaviors like bed wetting or wanting a special toy
  • Vomiting

What to Do

When you talk with your children, listen to how they say what they say. Watch them at play with other children and with their toys. Repeat information and reassurances many times; answer their questions as much as you can. Hold your child, provide comfort (touching is very important for children during stress). Spend extra time with them before going to bed. Don't hesitate to seek help from friends, family, schools, religious organizations, or support groups. Local Disaster Services will also be obtaining stress counseling for disaster victims, including children. Caution: the stress reactions of your kids will be a source of stress for you. Don't take your stress out on your kids.

When a Disaster Happens

Take care of first things first. Immediate threats are the obvious and threatening: fire, freezing cold, medical emergencies, severe weather, industrial/chemical/pipeline explosions. Have a battery operated radio available to obtain up to date information on the disaster and the location of emergency shelters and drinking water. Medically fragile people, the elderly, and families with young children are especially vulnerable in disasters. Check on your neighbors! It may be necessary to set up heated shelters in homes or public buildings during winter emergencies, or for people to stay with neighbors.

Encourage Dialogue

Be realistic in your expectations. Things won't get back to normal instantly. It will take time for the situation to recover and the burden may be on each community to rescue itself. Encourage dialogue about what has happened. People's emotions may be roller-coastering; it will help (a lot) to be able to talk about the event and how it has impacted their lives, for better or for worse. Encourage dialogue (organize opportunities for this to happen). But remember, rumors abound in disaster situations and should be judged with skepticism until proven true. Beware of spreading false information that creates public anxiety.

Be Helpful

It helps to be pro-active and hopeful. If there are things that need to be done to help put things back to normal, then do them. Try not to be swamped by details. Keep your eyes on the big picture and what has to happen in order to ensure the health, safety, security, and wellness of your family and neighborhood. Be open to creative solutions to shortages, failed public services, or problems in the marketplace. You will not be able to get through this safely and securely all by yourself: you need your community, and your community will need you.