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Coping with Natural Disasters

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Updated June 19, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

If you have been exposed to a natural disaster (for example, a tornado or hurricane), it is very important to learn ways of coping with natural disasters and their impact. Natural disasters can be considered traumatic events that have a high potential to place you at risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

As with any traumatic event, natural disasters can bring about high levels of stress, anxiety, and anger. Unlike other traumatic events, natural disasters can also result in the tremendous destruction of property and financial loss, further affecting your stress levels and disrupting coping efforts. For example, tornadoes and hurricanes can destroy and disperse entire communities, thwarting attempts to connect with social support.

Despite the far-reaching effects of natural disasters, there are steps you can take to cope. Listed below are some ways you may be able to reduce the effect of a natural disaster.

  • Seek out and connect with social support. Over and over again, it has been found that finding support from others can be a major factor in helping people overcome the negative effects of a traumatic event and PTSD. Given that a natural disaster can impact an entire community, your support system may be weakened by a natural disaster. However, even connecting with one person can have a large impact.

  • Identify local support groups or available crisis counselors to talk to. After a natural disaster, crisis counselors may be brought in to offer support and help you come up with ways of coping with the impact of a natural disaster. Take advantage of these opportunities.

  • Try to establish a schedule. For example, set regular times for meals, waking up in the morning, or talking with family and friends. A natural disaster can greatly disrupt your regular schedule, increasing the extent to which your life feels chaotic and out of control. Coming up with a daily, structured schedule can help you establish a sense of predictability and control.

  • Talk about the effect of the natural disaster. Share your feelings with others, or at the very least, find some way to express your emotions. A natural disaster can result in strong feelings of anger, anxiety, and sadness. These emotions need to be expressed. If you hold them in, they may only grow stronger in intensity.

  • Focus on self-care. A natural disaster can deplete you physically. It is very important that you put aside time for caring for yourself. Make sure you eat well, get enough sleep, and exercise. Self-care is incredibly important to our emotional health. By taking care of yourself physically, you may increase the extent to which you can cope with the effect of a natural disaster.

  • Practice healthy coping strategies. Following a natural disaster, you will experience a number of intense negative emotions. Therefore, it is very important to identify healthy ways of managing these emotions. Alcohol use, excessive sleep, or seeking comfort in food may be effective short-term strategies for managing emotional distress; however, in the long-term, these strategies won't address the real issue and will only cause your distress to increase.

  • Find ways to help others. Helping others can provide you with a sense of agency, purpose, control, and empowerment.

  • Try to limit other sources of stress in your life. Although you may have little control over other sources of stress in your life, try to limit the extent to which you make major decisions or life changes. Your most important task following a natural disaster is getting your life and emotions back in order. Therefore, it is important to put yourself in a place where it is going to be easier to do this.

Getting Help

It is important to recognize that it is very normal to experience PTSD-like symptoms in the aftermath of a traumatic event. Following a traumatic event, people may experience intrusive thoughts or memories of a traumatic event, feel on edge, or have difficulty sleeping. These symptoms are, in many ways, the body's natural reaction to a highly stressful event.

For most people, these symptoms will naturally dissipate over time. Coping in a healthy manner will further increase the likelihood that these symptoms will reduce over time. However, engaging in unhealthy coping strategies (for example, drinking or other avoidance strategies) can increase the possibility that these symptoms linger and potentially worsen, eventually resulting in a PTSD diagnosis. Therefore, using healthy coping strategies is key to recovery from a natural disaster.

If you notice that your symptoms are lingering and beginning to interfere with different aspects of your life, it may be time to seek help. If you decide to get therapy, finding a mental health provider can be an overwhelming and stressful task. Fortunately, there are several websites with free search engines that can help you find mental health providers in your area that treat PTSD. Some of these websites are described here.

Even if you don't feel as though your symptoms are interfering with your life, there is no harm in seeking out help. Talking with a mental health professional can provide social support and help you work through stress in the aftermath of a natural disaster. A mental health professional can also help you problem-solve ways of getting your life back in order, taking some of the strain off of your shoulders. This additional support can help prevent the development of PTSD or some other disorder.

Source:

American Psychological Association (2010). Managing traumatic stress: After the tornadoes (http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/tornadoes.aspx). Accessed April 28, 2010.

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