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 ChangesDuring 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.
Helpful/CompassionateDuring 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/ViolenceDuring 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/NeedsChildren 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 ReactionsCommon reactions to severe stress in kids include:
- Feeling guilty or neglected
- Getting upset easily
- Refusing to eat
- Regression to earlier behaviors like bed wetting or wanting a special toy