Loyola University Maryland

Counseling Center

Surviving a Natural Disaster: The Emotional Toll

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Hurricane Sandy has been one of the most powerful natural disasters the East Coast has experienced in some time. Surviving a natural disaster has to do with much more than getting through the environmental and physical aspects of the disaster. Those aspects are sometimes easier to notice and are oftentimes emphasized more in the news coverage in the media. However, the increased vulnerability that most people experience when they have faced such danger and the loss of their regular ways of life cannot be ignored. Such feelings of vulnerability often lead to high levels of stress. And the effects—the emotional toll—of that stress can vary from person to person. It is quite normal for people to experience mild stress reactions for several days or weeks after a natural disaster.

Often, initially, people will experience shock and denial in first couple hours or days after the disaster. When shock occurs, people feel stunned or dazed. Denial means that they cannot acknowledge that a stressful situation has occurred or that they cannot experience the full intensity of what has happened. Both shock and denial are normal protective responses to the trauma of the disaster, which can be too much to absorb all at once. After those initial reactions subside, people’s reactions can vary to a large extent. Often they may feel intense and unpredictable feelings, though sometimes feelings of anger and fear may be triggered by specific reminders of the natural disaster. Some people will have reactions immediately following the event and some will have delayed reactions. Some will recover quickly and some will have adverse effects for a long time. It is important to remember that there is no standard pattern of reaction to natural disasters and other trauma. Specifically, the varied reactions may include any of the following:

  • Emotional reactions: Experiencing feelings of fear, grief, anger, guilt, resentment, helplessness, hopelessness, or ongoing emotional numbness.
  • Cognitive reactions: Being confused, indecisive, worried. Noticing decreased attention span and concentration, memory problems, unwanted memories. Having negative thoughts about oneself, perhaps in a blaming way.
  • Physical reactions: Feeling tension, fatigue, restlessness. Having sleep disturbances, bodily aches and pains, changes in appetite. Experiencing racing heartbeat, nausea, quick startle response.
  • Interpersonal reactions: Feeling more distrustful, irritable. Having more conflict in relationships. Withdrawing/isolating from others and putting distance between oneself and others. Feeling rejected and abandoned by others. Being judgmental and over-controlling.

Though most people’s reactions will dissipate within a few weeks, some will experience more severe stress responses.  Those who are at greater risk for experiencing stronger reactions are those who experienced or witnessed during or after the natural disaster the following things:

  • Loss of loved ones
  • Life-threatening danger
  • Exposure to others’ deaths/injury
  • Extreme environmental destruction
  • Loss of home, possessions, neighborhood, community
  • Loss of communication with and support from loved ones
  • Extreme emotional and/or physical strain

Other factors that may tend to increase the risk of a prolonged stress reaction include:

  • Having a history of previous trauma
  • Having chronic medical or psychological conditions
  • Experiencing high life stressors/emotional strain prior to the event or in addition to the disaster after it occurs
  • Experiencing chronic poverty or discrimination prior to the disaster
  • Having an overall high level of difficulty coping with challenging life situations prior to the disaster

The severe stress responses may also include:

  • Dissociation—where a person feels detached from their thoughts, feelings, and body—as though they are in a dream. May also include memory blanks where a person cannot remember what had happened during a
    certain period of time
  • Intrusive re-experiencing of the natural disaster—can come back through unwanted memories, nightmares, flashbacks
  • Hyper-arousal—the person feels anxious all of the time, is easily enraged, is highly irritable or on edge, feels agitated, and seems to be “on alert” at all times
  • Severe anxiety or depression

It is possible for people who have experienced a natural disaster to decrease the risk of these ongoing, negative stress reactions and to increase their ability to recovery. Reducing the risk of these reactions can be accomplished through a variety of means. These may include:

  • Establishing priorities for self. Breaking problems into smaller, more manageable steps and focusing on one step at a time
  • Re-establishing routine/structure to days to enhance sense of control. Avoiding workaholism as a way to escape the reaction to the disaster
  • Maintaining and re-establishing communication with loved ones and talking about experiences—releasing stress through getting support.
  • Avoiding isolation/withdrawal from others. Talking to others who have gone through the same situation
  • Increasing self-care—sleep, nutrition, exercise, avoiding or limiting substance use (including tobacco and caffeine)
  • Finding ways to calm self through relaxation—soothing music, deep breathing, visualization, meditation, prayer
  • Practicing positive distraction to focus your thoughts on more productive things—hobbies, recreation, work, art, etc.
  • Volunteering—doing something for others who have gone through the same situation
  • Making meaning of what you experienced—what you have learned about your values, strengths, and what is most important to you (which may not be possible to evaluate until months after the disaster). Often done
    through personal reflection or realized with sudden revelation. May also get other points of view by talking with trusted friends or family
  • Knowing when to seek professional counseling help—when you cannot and should not do it alone. Counseling may be needed if the reactions you are having cause you distress or lead to problems in your relationships or at work; if you are self-medicating your distress with alcohol and/or drugs; if you do not experience relief over time by using the coping skills listed above; and/or if your reactions worsen over time instead of improve

Though the experience of going through a natural disaster is difficult enough, it is sometimes surprising to people how much the emotional toll can linger and continue to affect them after the disaster is over. It is crucial to remember that these effects are normal. They are the body, mind, and spirit’s way of understanding, accepting, and making peace with an unexplainable situation. Thus, there truly is no one right or wrong way for people to react to such a situation. Through gentle self-care and by coping head-on with the emotional effects of the disaster, those reactions will decrease over time, the disaster can be let go of, and life will begin to re-balance.