Reducing Anxiety in the Aftermath of Hurricanes, Floods and Other Disasters

Jerilyn Ross, M.A., L.I.C.S.W. Health Guide July 08, 2008
  • Hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters can turn lives upside down. The damage they leave behind often leads to serious anxiety and depression, as well as physical health problems. It's natural to feel sad, scared, anxious, nervous, or depressed following a traumatic event. Many survivors also experience headaches, muscle tension, insomnia, or nausea for days or even weeks afterward.

     

    After a Traumatic Event

    If you've been exposed to a trauma and are having difficulty coping, try some of the following tips:

    • Do something positive. Donate blood, prepare care packages, or volunteer to help others, all of which can provide a sense of purpose in a situation that feels out of your control.
    • Follow your usual daily routine as much as possible.
    • Limit your exposure to repeated news stories, which usually increases stress.
    • Rest, get exercise, and eat properly. Seek out leisure and recreational activities that involve both mind and body.
    • Spend time with trusted loved ones for support.
    • Talk with others and seek support from those who have been exposed to the same or similar trauma.
    • Recognize that you cannot control everything.
    • Talk with a relative, friend, doctor or spiritual advisor about getting help. Asking for help is a sign of strength, not of weakness.
    • Contact a mental health professional if symptoms persist for more than a few weeks and interfere in your carrying out the normal activities of your daily life.

    Prolonged Anxiety and PTSD

    If anxiety symptoms persist after several weeks, they may signal the condition known as posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. This type of anxiety disorder is serious and potentially debilitating, but it is treatable. Symptoms may not appear until several months or even years later.

    PTSD is characterized by three main types of symptoms:

    • Re-experiencing the trauma through intrusive distressing recollections of the event, flashbacks, and nightmares.
    • Emotional numbness and avoidance of places, people, and activities that are reminders of the trauma.
    • Increased arousal such as difficulty sleeping and concentrating, feeling jumpy, and being easily irritated and angered.

     

    ADAA offers more information about coping with trauma. You can also read Coping with Traumatic Events on the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) website. 

     

    Helping Kids Recover

    Following a natural disaster or other traumatic event, children look to parents, teachers, and other adults in their lives because they rely on them for support.

    • Anticipate needs. Initiate conversations with children about their fears and anxieties, opening the door for them to talk openly with adults about what they are feeling and thinking.
    • Use candor and discretion. Be honest, but give details appropriate to a child's intellectual and emotional maturity. Begin with limited information that allows for future elaboration.
    • Let kids know how you feel. Let children know that adults experience upsetting feelings, too. They need to know that sometimes adults seek support from others, and that pain gets better over time.

    Most children return to normal behavior after experiencing a natural disaster. But if a child's distress interferes with daily activities after a few weeks, it may be time to seek professional help. Signs of distress include not sleeping or eating; excessive clinging; re-experiencing the event through nightmares, recollections, or play; emotional numbing; or persistent fears about disaster.

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    Stressful events may trigger the onset of an anxiety disorder in children. Learn about anxiety disorders in children and teens and how to find help. Download the Psychological First Aid guide (PDF) at The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

     

    PLEASE NOTE: The Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA) does not endorse or promote any specific medications or treatments.