Natural or manmade disasters are often shocking, life-threatening experiences that have long-term repercussions on those who experience them.  In the aftermath of a disaster, people often feel stunned, disoriented or incapable of comprehending upsetting information. People may have lost loved ones or their homes. They might have to live in camps or shelters without emotional or financial support from relatives or friends for extended periods of time. 

The most vulnerable groups affected by disasters and trauma include younger children, single parents, those who have recently separated or divorced, the elderly and anyone with a recent experience with another trauma.
After a disaster, it can be helpful for victims to understand that they are having common reactions to a very abnormal event. While the physical and emotional devastation borne out of a disaster can create feelings of helplessness and isolation, crisis counseling can help those who are experiencing issues caused by disaster-related stress.

Signs & Symptoms

When the initial shock and feelings of helplessness go away, people commonly experience a wide array of thoughts, feelings and behaviors following a disaster. They include:

  • Feeling anxious, overwhelmed, bereft, irritable, or moody
  • Vivid and repeated memories of the event occurring at any time and causing a physical reaction such rapid heartbeat or sweating 
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions 
  • Disrupted sleep and eating patterns 
  • Sensitivity to environmental factors that may trigger flashbacks of the event
  • Strained interpersonal relationships, such as frequent disagreements or withdrawal
  • Ongoing stress-related physical symptoms such as insomnia, chest pain, gastrointestinal upset, decreased appetite or libido, and increased vulnerability to illness

Tips & Recommendations

The reaction to any trauma is most extreme in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, but most people will recover over time. A successful mental health recovery depends on the coping strategies, support and resources that a family has available to them. Here are additional tips for recovery:

  • Take time to mourn your losses and acknowledge this is a difficult time in your life.
  • Don’t rush your emotional recovery. Everyone recovers on his or her own timetable.
  • Ask for support from people important to you. Confide in those who will listen and empathize with your situation. 
  • Find support from others who have survived the disaster. Sharing common experiences can help victims heal.
  • Join a local support group led by appropriately trained and experienced professionals. Support group meetings can be especially helpful for people with limited personal support systems.
  • Establish healthy behaviors, such as eating well-balanced meals and getting plenty of rest. 
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs. They may delay active coping and progress going forward from the disaster.
  • Establish positive routines so you have something to look forward to during stressful times. Join a book club, find a hobby or commit to a walking routine with a friend.

Marriage and Family Therapists (MFTS) can help you manage your feelings and cope with the lingering effects of a natural or manmade disaster.

Additional Resources

APA: Recovering Emotionally From Disaster

NIMH: Coping with Traumatic Events

SAMHSA: Coping with Traumatic Events



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Featured Therapist 

Linda Crossley, M.A.
Linda M. Crossley, M.A.

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Irvine, CA

I know it can be scary to reach out for help, especially in a culture that tells us we should be able to solve our problems on our own and, if we can’t, there is something wrong with us. Well, I’m here to challenge that culture that values independence more than interdependence, because as humans we are designed to be connected with others in relationships. And sometimes the first relationship that needs our focused attention is the one we have with ourselves in order to ‘show up’ in our relationships with others.

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