Emotional Impact of Disasters

Disasters often strike with little or no warning. In an instant your home and community can be damaged or destroyed and forever changed.

After a disaster, it is common to experience a wide range of reactions, including changes in your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Understanding how you may be affected in the aftermath of a disaster can help you cope better. Feelings of sadness, anger, and grief are normal reactions to abnormal events such as disasters. You may not experience these feelings initially while your time and energy are consumed picking up the pieces and rebuilding. They may surface later. Anniversary dates of the disaster may also bring a resurgence of post-traumatic reactions.

Here are some common feelings and reactions to a disaster:

  • Fear and anxiety, especially when things remind you of the disaster
  • A sense of despair, hopelessness, or emptiness
  • Irritability and a short temper
  • Frustration and resentment
  • Feeling out of balance, easily upset, or “just not yourself”
  • Loss of interest in everyday activities
  • Loss of memory, even of names and phone numbers used frequently
  • Increased/hyperactive startle reflex

Changes in behavior also are normal reactions to traumatic events. Common behaviors may include:

  • Isolating or withdrawing from others
  • Keeping excessively busy to avoid the unpleasant effects of the disaster
  • Avoiding activities, places, or even people that remind you of the disaster
  • Becoming overly alert or easily startled
  • Having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Increasing conflicts or tension with family members or others
  • Crying or becoming tearful for no apparent reason
  • Having an increase or decrease in your normal appetite
  • Experiencing an increased desire to use alcohol or drugs. Seek help or support if this is a concern.

Disasters can affect people mentally. You may be experiencing:

  • Trouble concentrating or remembering things
  • Being easily distracted
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Replaying the events and circumstances of the disaster in your mind
  • Recurring dreams or nightmares
  • Questioning your spiritual or religious beliefs

There are several things you and your family can do to reduce stress:

  • Talk to others about how you are feeling and what you experienced. You need to express sadness, grief, anger, and fear over what has happened and what you are facing.
  • Don’t overwork yourself. Take time off from repairs to be with your family. Make time for recreation, relaxation, or a favorite hobby.
  • Don’t let yourself become isolated. Seek out and maintain connections with your community, friends, relatives, neighbors, co-workers, or church members.
  • Pay close attention to your physical health, as prolonged stress can take a toll on your body. Maintain a good diet, get enough sleep, and exercise regularly.
  • Upsetting times can cause some people to use alcohol or drugs to cope with stress. In the long run, they will not help and will likely cause other problems. Seek help if you or a loved one is using alcohol or drugs to cope with stress.
  • Seek immediate medical attention is any of your post traumatic reactions become severe or if you have thoughts of harming yourself.

As much as possible, families should maintain routines, such as having regular meals together, engaging in enjoyable activities, and continuing other family rituals. This will help you feel that life still has some sense of order and normalcy and provide comfort in times of uncertainty.

Helping your spouse

Couples need to tend to their relationship. Make time to be alone, talk about your feelings, and have fun together.

Helping children

Talk with children about their experiences and let them freely express their feelings. This is a confusing and frightening time for them.

Pay attention to changes in their behavior and other signs that can indicate emotional distress. Some children may withdraw, while others may act out in anger.

It is not uncommon for immature behaviors to reappear, such as bed-wetting or thumb-sucking. Children also may have nightmares or show their fear as symptoms of sickness.

Accept their special needs by allowing them to become more dependent on you for a time and give them plenty of affection.

Learn more about the ways you can help children recover from a disaster.

Helping the elderly

Older family members will experience many of the same reactions as others but may have some other particular concerns, such as fears of declining health, becoming dependent, or being institutionalized.

Because of these fears, they may be reluctant to share the full extent of the disaster’s impact on them.

Reassure them by showing that you care and are available whenever they are ready to accept your help.

Learn more about the ways to help the elderly recover.


It is important to be realistic about recovery. It probably will not be an easy or short-term process. You may be facing many challenges.

Recognizing that you cannot control everything can help ease your stress, and setting realistic timeframes can increase your hope that life will again return to normal.

If your stress level becomes unmanageable or lasts longer than three months, you should seek professional help.