9 Ways to Manage Stress After a Natural Disaster

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Natural disasters happen. And when they do, they turn our lives upside down, leaving behind panic, anxiety, and stress. Research published in Psychological Medicine suggests that as many as 30 to 40 percent of disaster victims develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), along with 10 to 20 percent of rescue workers and 5 to 10 percent of the general public. Although you can’t control many aspects of a natural disaster, there are steps you can take to minimize your stress. Here are nine.


Distinguish stress from PTSD

It’s important to distinguish manageable stress from PTSD. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America defines PTSD with three main types of symptoms: Re-experiencing the trauma through flashbacks and nightmares; emotional numbness and avoidance of places, people, and activities that are reminders of the trauma; and increased arousal, such as difficulty sleeping and concentrating, irritability, and moodiness.


Limit your exposure to images of disaster

You want the minute-by-minute report, but you come away from the computer or TV stressed out. For a period of time, it’s best to turn off the TV and stay clear of certain websites, as they are going to keep you traumatized. If you need to know what’s going on, ask a friend to give you the highlights, or set a timer for 10 to 15 minutes each day during which you’re free to look at news.


Prioritize your to-dos

No doubt you’re overwhelmed by the clean-up process and everything that needs to happen to return to normal. Make a to-do list and prioritize your items. Focus on only a few things at a time. Color code your items according to priority, or record the tasks that can wait a month on a separate sheet or notebook so that you only see what truly needs to get done.


Do something to help

Actions often relieve anxiety, especially in the context of natural disasters. Anything you can do to help those most affected by nature’s wrath is going to boost your mood. Consider volunteering your time to a relief organization, giving blood, or assembling care packages for other victims. Be creative in how you lend a helping hand.


Establish or re-establish routines

Natural disasters produce anxiety because they disrupt our daily routines. The way back to sanity, then, is to re-establish those routines as soon as possible or create new ones. Even if you are sleeping in a shelter or in a stranger’s house, there are certain rituals and activities — for example, when you eat dinner — that you can incorporate into your schedule that will give you some semblance of control.


Take care of yourself

You’ve been through the wringer. It’s time to up your self-care a notch. Some people calm their nerves in a bath tub with essential oils and relaxing music. Others prefer banging on their drums or cooking a gourmet meal. Pamper yourself as best you know how, but start with getting adequate sleep, eating well, and spending time with people who make you laugh.


Express yourself in words or images

Richard Heaps, a psychologist at Brigham Young University’s counseling psychology department and a disaster mental health volunteer with the American Red Cross, recommends different forms of expression for processing a disaster. “Communicating their thoughts and feelings helps people understand the reality of what they have experienced,” he said in a CNN interview. “It also opens the door to the possibility of moving forward past the trauma.”


Avoid making any major decisions

Your house is flooded. Your belongings are gone. Part of you wants to start over somewhere else or ditch your career in IT and become an artist — after all, life is short. But hang tight. It’s not always wise to make major decisions in times of heightened stress. Piece together some of the broken pieces first, then reconsider your big decision when you are able to think more clearly.


Ask for help

Reach out for help if, at any time, you recognize symptoms of PTDS in yourself or a loved one: physical discomfort like headaches, nausea, and chest pain; repeated flashbacks; irritability, anxiety, and depression; and difficulty making decisions. The American Psychology Association offers resources, including their Psychologist Locator. HealthCentral also has compiled resources for anxiety and depression. Remember that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.