Managing StressGeneral Public
Traumatic Stress
Serious Stress

How do I manage stress following a disaster?
Information is available elsewhere on this website on what stress is and how it changes during phases of disaster response. Stress, as we discuss there, is an adaptive and necessary preparation for the work of survival, but becomes a problem when it is excessive in level (that is, too much stress) or when it hangs around past the time when it is needed. In these cases “good stress” turns into “bad stress." Here are some things you can do in conjunction with disasters to lessen stress levels:

*Please see stress-related sections of this website for additional information on when to seek help.

Web Links
This site provides information from Dr. Patti Levin regarding what you may experience after a disaster. On the left of the page there is a links section with more detailed information. (PDF)
This Stress Institute site provides advice and tips for reducing stress, such as breath work and prayer. (PDF)
This article is an American Psychological Association website providing useful information about getting help for oneself and one’s family. Also discusses the timeframes that go along with coping after a disaster. (PDF)

What is traumatic stress?
Stress is a typical, and even adaptive, response to traumatic events such as disasters. The arousal, shock, and denial that we feel in the midst of disasters help us accomplish survival tasks, and also help us keep from feeling overwhelmed. What is important, though, is that we recognize the signs of stress and learn to manage it in such a way that we can continue to function. Here are some helpful facts and tips:

This site (PDF) has suggested the following typical stress response to trauma:

  1. Impact phase
    The focus is on survival. Sometimes during this phase people are able to use stress to accomplish meaningful tasks, and other times they respond in a way that is disorganized and stunned. Stressors during this phase include:
    • Threat to life and encounter with death
    • Feelings of helplessness and powerlessness
    • Loss (e.g., loved ones, home, possessions)
    • Dislocation (i.e., separation from loved ones, home, familiar settings, neighborhood, community)
    • Feeling responsible (e.g., feeling as though could have done more)
    • Anger at human evil (It is particularly difficult to cope with a disaster if it is seen as the result of deliberate human actions.)
  2. Immediate post-disaster phase: recoil and rescue
    During this phase we begin to recoil from the impact of the disaster, and rescue activities often commence. It is normal to feel stunned, confused, or anxious. Stress responses during this phase may include:
    • Numbness
    • Denial or shock
    • Flashbacks (PDF) and nightmares
    • Grief reactions to loss
    • Anger
    • Despair
    • Sadness
    • Hopelessness

Sometimes, having survived the initial phase of a disaster, people feel a high degree of elation and relief.

  1. Recovery phase
    This is a sometimes-lengthy period of adjustment in the return to normal that the community and individuals must go through. It begins as rescue is completed and individuals and communities face the task of bringing their lives and activities back to normal. Much will depend on the extent of devastation and destruction that has occurred as well as injuries and lives lost. It is normal for the emotional and physical components of stress to change during the recovery phase, as the immediate threats to survival are no longer the focus and life starts to ask other questions about meaning and values in the midst of disaster. People may also be hesitant to express distress, concern, or dissatisfaction, feeling they should be grateful for the aid given or because they have suffered less than others have. It should be noted that sometimes emotional reactions may present as physical health symptoms, such as sleep disturbance, indigestion, and fatigue, or they may present as social effects such as relationship or work difficulties.
    The important thing throughout is to turn stress into work, and give ourselves time to heal. Some more things to keep in mind are:
    • Stress responses tend to change over time in intensity, frequency, duration, and character.
    • The time it takes for emotional “wounds” to heal varies. Much like the flu, traumatic stress reactions must run their course. No one can deny that this is a difficult experience, but it is important to know the reactions are normal and will ease in time.

Web Links
The Stress Institute has literature and resources on the nature of stress and provides advice for coping with the enormity of a disaster, such as breath work and prayer.
This Department of Veterans Affairs website details the phases of traumatic stress during and after a disaster. (PDF)

Post-Disaster Stress: When is it normal, and when is it more serious?
Just as physical recovery from a disaster takes time, mental health recovery is a process, not an event. As the immediate post-disaster stress response diminishes, here are some principles to keep in mind:

All of us have a different and somewhat unique timetable for disaster recovery, and there is not one “standard” pattern of reaction to the extreme stress of traumatic experiences.
Personal Factors Related to Severe Distress
Personal experiences and characteristics can influence our way of responding to disasters. Some of these influences include:

  1. Family factors. People who are not living with other family members, who have been exposed to family violence, have a family history of mental illness, and/or have caregivers who are severely distressed by the disaster are more likely themselves to be severely distressed.
  2. Social factors. People who must face a disaster without supportive and nurturing friends or relatives suffer more than those who have at lease one source of such support.
  3. Mental health. Those who had mental health problems (such as depression or anxiety disorders) before experiencing a disaster will be more likely to be severely distressed by a traumatic event.
  4. Developmental level. Although young children, in some respects, may be protected from the emotional impact of traumatic events (because they don’t recognize the threat), once they perceive the situation as dangerous, younger children are more likely to experience severe stress reactions than are older children.
  5. Previous disaster experience. People who have experienced previous threatening and/or frightening events are more likely to experience severe reactions to a subsequent disaster event severe psychological distress.

Normal post-traumatic responses to disaster include:

Signs that additional help is needed
How do you know when you or a loved one might need help in healing from the disaster? The following symptoms may indicate a deeper stress or more serious reaction than what is considered "normal" stress. These types of reactions may interfere with the person's day-to-day functioning and could continue indefinitely without outside assistance. Difficulties with any or all of the following:

Some traumatic responses are unique to children
Teachers and parents should be alert to these signs of complicated post-disaster response in children:

What to do if you are concerned about your or others’ response to a disaster
Here is a Post-traumatic Stress Disorder self-test that you may want to take to get an idea of how your level of stress compares with that of others. If you have any reason to be concerned about your stress following the disaster, please seek appropriate help. Professional companionship for those affected by a disaster--especially those who have witnessed destruction, injury or death--can help prevent or minimize serious post-traumatic stress disorders. You should consult with your family physician for referral to sources of help with these struggles. Parents who are concerned about their children can ask their pediatrician or family doctor to refer them for an evaluation.

Web Links
Georgia’s Disaster & Emergency Website. If computer access is possible during a disaster, this should be the first place to go.
The Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) coordinates & maintains disaster response facilities & procedures in the state. It offers up-to-the-minute disaster information.
CBS News maintains this large database of disaster-related websites.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) offers this website for emergency preparedness.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers disaster-related information for individuals here.
Ready.gov provides this section of their website to help individual Americans “prepare, plan, and stay informed.”
Prepare.org offers a very helpful & comprehensive overview of what to do to prepare for disasters and what to expect after a disaster.
The American Red Cross offers this site to help you prepare and get trained for a disaster.
The American Red Cross offers this site to help you get assistance after a disaster.
The American Psychological Association (APA) offers tips for managing traumatic stress in recovering from disasters and other traumatic events.
This Department of Veterans Affairs website details the phases of traumatic stress during and after a disaster as described by the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.