Coping After Disaster, Trauma
Disasters and traumatic events can have tremendous psychological impacts on individuals, even if they are not directly involved. People can experience a range of emotions, including anger, frustration and sadness, and can react in many different ways, including physical and psychological symptoms.
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The impacts and reactions can happen immediately or may appear after some time. There are steps that individuals can take for themselves and their families to mitigate and lessen the psychosomatic impacts. This page features resources that can assist in coping with disaster, trauma and tragedy.
After an event is over, APA recommends following these steps to begin coping with the possible stress that follows a tragedy:
- Keep informed about new information and developments, but avoid overexposure to news rebroadcasts of the events. Be sure to use credible sources of information to avoid speculation and rumors.
- Learn what local resources are available to aid those affected by the tragedy and be prepared to share this information.
- If you feel anxious, angry or depressed, you are not alone. Talk to friends, family or colleagues who likely are experiencing the same feelings.
- If you have children, keep open dialogues with them regarding their fears and the traumatic event. Let them know that in time, the tragedy will pass. Don’t minimize the danger, but talk about your ability to cope with tragedy and get through the ordeal.
- Feelings of anxiety and depression following a traumatic event are natural. If these symptoms continue, even after order has been restored, or if these feelings begin to overwhelm you, seek the advice of a psychiatrist in your community.
Common Reactions of Survivors of Disaster and Other Traumatic Events
- Thinking that no one else is having any of the same reactions and that you are alone in dealing with your feelings
- Having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
- Feeling like you have no energy or like you are always exhausted
- Feeling sad or depressed
- Having stomachaches or headaches
- Feeling like you have too much energy or like you are hyperactive
- Feeling very irritable or angry—fighting with friends or family for no reason
- Being numb—not feeling at all
- Having trouble focusing on schoolwork
- Having periods of confusion
- Drinking alcohol or using illicit drugs or even legal medications to stop your feelings
- Not having any appetite at all, or just the opposite—finding that you are eating too much
Helping Children Cope with Traumatic Events
Traumatic events are not easy for anyone to comprehend or accept. Understandably, many young children feel frightened and confused. As parents, teachers and caring adults, we can best help by listening and responding in an honest, consistent and supportive manner. Fortunately, most children, even those exposed to trauma, are quite resilient. By creating a supportive environment where they feel free to ask questions, we can help them cope with stressful events and experiences, and reduce the risk of lasting emotional difficulties. Although these may be difficult conversations, they are important.
There is no “right” or “wrong” way to talk with children about these events. However, here are some suggestions that you may find helpful:
- Create an open and supportive environment where children know they can ask questions. At the same time, it’s best not to force children to talk about things unless and until they’re ready.
- Give children honest answers and information. Children will usually know, or eventually find out, if you’re “making things up.” It may affect their ability to trust you or your reassurances in the future.
- Use words and concepts children can understand. Gear your explanations to the child’s age, language, and developmental level.
- Be prepared to repeat information and explanations several times. Some information may be hard to accept or understand. Asking the same question over and over may also be a way for a child to ask for reassurance.
- Acknowledge and validate the child’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Let them know that you think their questions and concerns are important and appropriate.
- Remember that children tend to personalize situations. For example, they may worry about their own safety and the safety of immediate family members, friends and neighbors.
- Be reassuring, but don’t make unrealistic promises.
- Help children find ways to express themselves. Some children may not want to talk about their thoughts, feelings or fears. They may be more comfortable drawing pictures, playing with toys or writing stories or poems.
- Let children know that lots of people trying to keep the community safe. It’s a good opportunity to show children that when something scary happens, there are people to help.
- Children learn from watching their parents and teachers. They will be very interested in how you respond to this tragedy. They also learn from listening to your conversations with other adults.
- Monitor children’s viewing of news coverage with frightening images. The repetition of such scenes can be disturbing and confusing.
- Children who have experienced trauma or losses in the past are particularly vulnerable to prolonged or intense reactions to news or images of the traumatic event. These children may need extra support and attention.
- Monitor for physical symptoms, including headaches and stomachaches. Many children express anxiety through physical aches and pains. An increase in such symptoms without apparent medical cause may be a sign that a child is feeling anxious or overwhelmed.
- Some signs that a child may need additional help include ongoing sleep disturbances, intrusive thoughts or worries, preoccupation with concerns about the event or recurring fears about death. If these behaviors persist, ask your child’s pediatrician, family physician or school counselor to help arrange an appropriate referral.
Resources for Helping Children
- A child’s reaction to disaster by age (FEMA)
- Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Violence and Disasters – What Parents Can Do (NIMH)
- Tips for Talking With and Helping Children and Youth After a Disaster or Traumatic Event – A Guide for Parents, Caregivers, and Teachers (Spanish, Punjabi) (SAMHSA)
- Help Kids Cope – This app helps parents and caregivers talk with children about disasters; know what to do before, during, and after 10 disaster types; and know what to say “in the moment” to support your kids of all ages. (NCTSN)
- Tips for College Students – After a Disaster or Other Traumatic Event (Spanish) (SAMHSA)
Disaster/Trauma Reactions and Interventions for Adults
- Sleep or appetite problems
- Extreme avoidance of reminders of the event
- Mood changes—crying easily, sadness, irritability, anger
- Anxiety, fear
- Isolation, withdrawal
Reactions older adults may also experience:
- Reluctance to leave home or anxiety with unfamiliar surroundings
- Worsening of chronic illnesses
- Confusion, memory problems
- Provide supportive listening and opportunity to talk in detail about the experience
- Offer help to family members also
- Provide information on disaster/trauma stress and coping and helping children
- Provide referrals for more help
Additional interventions for older adults:
- Provide strong and persistent verbal reassurance
- Encourage discussion of disaster losses and expression of emotions
- Facilitate referrals for disaster assistance and medical and financial assistance
Adapted from SAMHSA Field Manual for Mental Health and Human Service Working in Major Disasters.
When Terrible Things Happen: What Helps, What Doesn’t Help
- Talking to another person for support or spending time with others
- Focusing on something practical that you can do right now to manage the situation better
- Engaging in positive distracting activities (sports, hobbies, reading)
- Using relaxation methods (breathing exercises, meditation, calming self-talk, soothing music)
- Getting adequate rest and eating healthy meals
- Participating in a support group
- Trying to maintain a normal schedule
- Exercising in moderation
- Scheduling pleasant activities
- Keeping a journal
- Taking breaks
- Seeking counseling
- Reminiscing about a loved one who has died (because of the event)
What Doesn’t Help
- Using alcohol or drugs to cope
- Extreme avoidance of thinking or talking about the event or a death of a loved one
- Extreme withdrawal from family or friends
- Violence or conflict
- Not taking care of yourself
- Overeating or failing to eat
- Doing risky things (driving recklessly, substance abuse, not taking adequate precautions)
- Excessive TV or computer games
- Withdrawing from pleasant activities
- Blaming others