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Emotional Distress after a Natural Disaster

  • Category: Living Well
  • Posted On:
  • Written By: Meredith Maxwell, M.D., M.H.A.

Natural disasters are considered to be a traumatic event that can cause a high level of stress and anxiety. With the recent flooding in Louisiana, we are reminded that floods can have a negative impact on people’s psychological and physical health. When a disaster occurs, children may witness uncommon anxiety and fear in their parents and caregivers. Families may lose pets and cherished memorabilia. Individuals may develop chronic emotional and behavioral problems following exposure to pervasive stresses, such as the loss of community infrastructure, of home or employment, or of family or friends. It is important to learn ways of coping with emotional stress in a natural disaster.

How to Respond to Emotional Stress

No one who lives through a natural disaster is untouched by the experience. Natural disasters can threaten our sense of control and safety, and can affect many aspects of our lives. Individuals should deal with the emotional consequences soon after a disaster to help reduce the possibility of long-term problems.

The first step in managing the emotional consequences of disasters is realizing that these are “normal reactions that normal people have to abnormal situations”. Keep in mind that worrying is normal, but excessive worrying is not. Most disaster stress reactions are temporary and resolve by themselves over time. For some people, these powerful emotional reactions do not go away quickly or by themselves, which requires professional mental health services.

Other common emotional reactions:

  • Recurring dreams or nightmares about flooding or another natural disaster
  • Trouble concentrating or remembering things
  • Feeling numb, withdrawn or disconnected
  • Having bursts of anger or intense irritability
  • Persistent physical symptoms (i.e., headaches, digestive problems, muscle tension, etc.)

Coping Mechanisms for Emotional Stress

Remember that you are not alone and talking helps. There are counselors available in your community and by telephone, if you would like to share your thoughts and feelings. To help you best manage the emotions associated with the flood, you should use the coping mechanisms that are familiar and comfortable to you.

Tips for coping with the stress and anxiety stemming from a natural disaster:

  • Limiting your exposure to graphic news stories about the flood or other disasters
  • Getting back to your normal routine as soon as possible, this is especially important for children
  • Exercising, eating well and resting
  • Staying busy- physically and mentally
  • Communicating with friends, family and supporters
  • Keeping a sense of humor
  • Expressing yourself through writing, poetry, drawing, etc.
  • Helping those in need in whatever way you are able to.

Meredith Maxwell, M.D., M.H.A., attended the University of South Alabama College of Medicine, where she completed her family medicine residency, before joining the Touro Infirmary Health System. She is certified by the American Board of Family Medicine Diplomate. Dr. Maxwell chose family medicine because she gets to see patients of all ages and the whole family.