Understanding emotional responses to natural disasters

By Catherine Galda, Director of Behavioral Health Services at Catholic Charities – September 15, 2017

Natural disasters can be sudden and overwhelming. It’s common to experience powerful feelings before, during and after the storm and yet, there is no “one size fits all” reaction to natural disasters. Some people will experience no adverse response while others may feel frightened, confused or overwhelmed. These feelings and responses aren’t limited by age, education, or economic status.

As individuals, our ability to cope and capacity for resilience have a great deal to do with what we experienced directly, and /or what happened to your friends and family, your neighborhood, and your community. Emotional distress can also be influenced by previous hurricane/ natural disaster experiences, personal history of traumas, cultural, and socioeconomic factors, as well as how basic needs of daily life are fulfilled.

After a natural or manmade disaster people may experience some or most of the signs outlined below. Try to keep in mind that what you are experiencing is a normal response to events that are not part of our everyday life.

Because the event(s) are far beyond our daily experience we may respond in ways we find distressing. That is normal. Having a powerful emotional response, whatever it is, doesn’t mean that the feelings will last forever. There a lot of things you can do to protect and restore emotional balance in the face of adverse events.

Below are resources and common emotional behavioral and physical responses to traumatic events and what you can do to care for yourself and those you love.


Common responses

  1. Feelings. You may feel anxious, overwhelmed and have difficulty focusing. You may feel like you are moodier than usual, agitated, tearful or irritable. You may go through these in different combinations through the course of a day.
  2. Thoughts and Actions. You might have distinct memories of the event. These can be vivid like you are reliving a past moment in time. When this happens, you may feel your heart race, breathing become faster, or you may begin sweating. Some people report difficulty with concentration, making decisions, feeling confused. Sleep and appetite are often impacted in the short term. Some will find they have little appetite while others are hungrier, some will want to sleep a great deal while others find they cannot sleep at all. People report nightmares too during this period of time.
  3. Triggers. Experiencing sights, sounds, and/or smells that were experienced during a stressful event can trigger feelings and thoughts that are painful or upsetting.
  4. Tension or conflict in personal relationships. It is not uncommon for people to experience increased conflict and irritability following disasters. We are often on edge and find that interpersonal relationships with family, friends or coworkers become strained. For others, interaction becomes a source of distress and people find themselves withdrawing from a desire for connection and social interaction.
  5. Body symptoms. Sometimes feelings are hard to isolate and identify. Common physical complaints after disaster can include headaches, nausea, rapid heartbeat, chest pain, and/ or sweating. Chronic medical issues may become more symptomatic or feel worse. Any heart symptoms should be taken seriously and be evaluated by a medical professional.

There are things that you can do to practice good self-care during times of elevated stress:

  1. Practice kindness toward ourselves and others: Being able to acknowledge what has happened and allowing ourselves to have our feelings opens the possibility of giving and receiving support. The ability to do this in times of crisis has been linked to more positive long term outcomes.
  2. Restore established routines ASAP. Try to get schedules and routines back on track. If that is impossible then develop a new structure in the short term. This is especially helpful for children and adolescents.
  3. Practice healthy coping skills. Sleep, proper nutrition, staying away from excessive substance use, exercise and good self-care go a long way in helping mind and body healing.
  4. Connection and Support. As time and safety will allow, coming together as family, community, and faith groups are crucial to recovery and identification and distribution of help and resources
  5. Recognize and acknowledge what has happened. Many people minimize or deny the stress caused by natural disaster by focusing outside of themselves. Take a moment and acknowledge what has occurred with yourself and with friends or loved ones.
  6. Grief and mourning. Allow yourself time for mourning. Changes are often accompanied by a sense of loss. Allow time for grief.
  7. Disconnection from Media. Take a media time out. Turn off the T.V and disconnect from the internet. Inundation by news media stories serves to elevate anxiety levels and overall distress. Plan time to plug in and times to shut it down.
  8. When to seek additional help. If you or someone you care about have symptoms lasting more than four weeks, and you’re not feeling any better, it is best to seek professional assistance. These might include trouble functioning at home and work, having an increasingly difficult time connecting and relating to others, experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings, avoiding more and more things that remind you of the disaster or traumatic event.
  9. Where to find help when you need it. There are many capable counselors who can assist in your journey toward healing. Call Catholic Charities of Central FL at 407-658-1818, contact your parish, call local 211, your insurance company or your primary care doctor for a referral.