In the past few weeks, North America has been hit with a slew of catastrophic natural disasters. Category 4 and 5 hurricanes have ripped through through the Caribbean, Texas and Florida, wildfires have ravaged Northern California and parts of Montana, and two major earthquakes have struck Mexico.
Hundreds of people have been killed, countless homes and community buildings have been damaged, thousands of families have been displaced, and millions of people are struggling to come to grips with the devastation that surrounds them.
Natural disasters often affect people in stages, according to Dr. Josh Klapow, a clinical psychologist, crisis correspondent and co-host of radio show “The Web.”
“In the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, shock is extremely common,” Klapow explained, adding that feeling stunned, confused, or emotionally numb is a normal defense mechanism after such an event.
Once the initial confusion subsides, people may experience an acute stress response and intense, often unpredictable emotions, Klapow said. “They may find their mood changing back and forth from nervous and anxious to depressed to normal [again]. Patience, tolerance and general temper may be all shortened,” he added.
People’s mental processes could be affected as well. They might have difficulty concentrating, sleeping, recalling important details or making decisions, said Klapow. He added that physical symptoms, like fatigue, headaches, nausea, and muscle cramps and aches are also common.
Each of these responses is normal and could last anywhere from a few days to several weeks or months, Klapow said. And while there’s no quick fix for disaster shock and trauma, there are concrete steps you can take to cope and begin to move forward.
1. Prepare to process major changes.
Returning home after a major disaster can stir up a wave of unexpected emotions. “It is not uncommon upon returning home to feel sick to your stomach, to break down and cry, [or] to feel as if a loved one has been injured,” Klapow explained.
Seeing the damage and destruction to your home and community will take time to process, and having feelings of deep devastation and loss are completely normal. To help face it, Klapow recommends surrounding yourself with friends and family who can offer support and strength in case you feel overwhelmed or distraught.
2. Give yourself permission to grieve.
Following a major disaster, you may feel pressured to bury your pain and sadness in order to return to a state of semi-normalcy. But part of the grieving process, according to Klapow, is granting yourself permission to feel shaken up.
“Acknowledge that this is going to be a tough time and that it’s OK to have mini breakdowns each day,” he said. “Feeling out-of-sorts is part of the processing that your body and mind need to do.”
3. Talk about your feelings.
Klapow said you shouldn’t feel obligated to share your feelings, but if you do feel like talking, he suggests seeking out a kind person who’s willing to listen while you unload. That could take the form of a close friend, family member, therapist, or support group.
4. Pay attention to your physical health.
It’s just as important to prioritize your physical health as it is to tend to your emotional well-being after a crisis. The stress of surviving a natural disaster and dealing with its aftermath can quickly take a toll on your body if you don’t take care of it, Klapow said.
Make sure you eat regular meals, hydrate often, and sleep enough for your body to recover. If you can handle it, try doing some light exercise like walking. Research shows exercise is a powerful combatant against anxiety and stress.
5. Take comfort in routine.
Whether you’re returning home, staying with loved ones, or living in a shelter or hotel, it’s important to initiate some kind of routine to fill out your days. “Order and structure can [help] greatly reduce stress and anxiety,” said Klapow.
Your routine doesn’t need to be complicated — just focus on adopting habits and activities that offer a sense of predictability, whether that involves eating dinner at the same time each day, taking a morning walk, visiting a friend every afternoon or journaling before you go to bed.
6. Unplug from the news.
You may feel tempted to tune into the news 24/7 after a disaster, but listening to troubling radio reports or watching bleak disaster footage for too many hours can be upsetting.
Try to disconnect from the news at least once every hour, suggested Klapow. Take a walk, read a book, play a game, or strike up a conversation with someone. Staying present and focusing on what’s right in front of you will help anchor your emotions.
7. Adjust your expectations.
Your life will not immediately return to how it was pre-disaster, which is why Klapow said you may need to “recalibrate your expectations of accomplishment and success.” Work on relinquishing your previous ideas of success — working out at the gym every day, for example, or taking multiple client meetings a week — and set new, gentler expectations of yourself.
Doing things like filing insurance papers or starting to clean up, Klapow said, may be new temporary markers of achievement. “Your mind will want to fast-forward to having [everything] fixed,” Klapow explained.
But it’s important to focus on taking small steps one at a time. “Celebrate what you have accomplished today and plan for what you will accomplish tomorrow,” he said. “Because these are the [only] actions that you can control.”
People who’ve experienced natural disasters often need what’s referred to as psychological first aid, said Klapow. “Psychological first aid is something anyone can provide, and it serves to help support victims and allow their natural, hard-wired coping mechanisms to kick in and be strong,” he explained.
If you have loved ones or community members who’ve been directly affected by recent natural disasters or crises, start by making sure their basic physical needs are met, Klapow suggested. That means ensuring they have weather-appropriate clothing, a safe place to stay, and access to food and water.
You can also provide support and help prevent social isolation by being a compassionate listener, Klapow explained, and by helping victims stay connected with their loved ones and communities.
When all else fails, simply tell them that you care. “Letting [them] know that they can count on you to help them with anything — from letting them cry to getting them a bottle of water — reminds them that their world has a bit of stability,” Klapow said.