Supporting yourself, your whānau, and others after a disaster.
Recovering from a disaster is a gradual process that takes both time and support from your whānau, friends, and wider community. Disasters occur very suddenly and with great force. Often there are no visible signs of physical injury, but the aftermath can leave an emotional toll. Understanding normal responses can aid you in coping effectively, with your feelings and behaviours, and will help you along the path to recovery.
Common responses to disasters
Initially, you may be overcome with sock and denial, which are both normal responses to traumatic events and disasters. You may feel stunned, dazed, numb, disconnected from life, or combination of these. Following the initial shock, your response may include intense emotional reactions such as sudden mood changes, and you may feel especially anxious, nervous or depressed. In some cases, a trigger will cause you to remember the traumatic experience, which is not only upsetting but may cause physical reactions that accompany stress. You may even find that your thoughts and behaviours are affected, so you may find it difficult to concentrate, make decisions, sleep, and eat. Because your usual activities are disrupted, you might withdraw from personal relationships which may leave you isolated.
You may need further assistance if you are experiencing:
- Difficulty in communicating your thoughts
- Difficulty sleeping
- Difficulty maintaining balance in your life
- Feelings of frustration
- Increased use of drugs/alcohol
- Limited attention span
- Poor work performance
- Headaches/stomach problems
- Tunnel vision/muffled hearing
- Colds or flu-like symptoms
- Disorientation or confusion
- Difficulty concentrating
- Reluctance to leave home
- Depression, sadness
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Mood-swings and bouts of crying
- Overwhelming guilt and self-doubt
- Fear of crowds, strangers, or being alone.
It is important to know, that there is not one "standard" reaction to stress, caused by traumatic experiences following a disaster. Some people respond immediately, while others have delayed reactions - sometimes months or even years later. Some people will experience long-term effects, while others recover quickly.
Factors that may affect the impact of the disaster on your life, include the degree of intensity and loss, your ability to cope with emotionally challenging situations, and other stressful events preceding the disaster. Individuals faced with other emotionally challenging situations, such as serious health problems or family-related difficulties, may have more intense reactions and need more time to recover.
What can I do to help myself, my whānau, and my friends?
Restoring your emotional well-being following a disaster or other traumatic experience might be:
- Giving yourself time to adjust and mourn the losses you have experienced. Try to be patient with changes in your emotional state
- Communicating your experience by talking with family or close friends or keeping a diary. Group discussion can help people by listening to other individuals in the same circumstances who have similar reactions and emotions
- Engaging in healthy behaviours and (re)engaging in routines such as eating well-balanced meals
- Take some time off from the demands of daily life by pursuing hobbies or other enjoyable activities
- If you experience ongoing difficulties with sleep, you may be able to find some relief through relaxation techniques
- Avoid alcohol and drugs
- Avoid major life decisions such as switching careers or buying a home, as these activities tend to be highly stressful.
Should I seek professional help?
Some people are able to cope with the emotional and physical demands brought about by traumatic events, by using their own support systems. Others with prolonged reactions that disrupt their daily functioning should consult a mental health professional. Psychologists and other appropriate mental health providers help people affected by trauma, to find constructive ways of dealing with the emotional impact. Skylight's counselling services can help.
Helping kids cope with disaster
Disasters can leave children feeling frightened, confused, and insecure, so it is important for adults to be informed and ready to help. Children may respond to disaster by demonstrating fears, sadness or behavioural problems. Younger children may return to earlier behaviour patterns, such as bed wetting, sleep problems and separation anxiety. Older children may also display anger, aggression, school problems or withdrawal.
Suggestions to help re-assure children include the following:
- Personal contact is reassuring
- Calmly provide factual information about the recent disaster and current plans for insuring their safety along with recovery plans
- Encourage your children to talk about their feelings
- Re-establish their daily routine for work, school, play, meals, and rest
- Praise and recognise responsible behaviour
- Understand that your children will have a range of reactions to disasters
- Limit their exposure to media.
If the reactions worsen over time, or if they interfere with daily behavior at school, at home, or with other relationships, it may be appropriate to talk to a professional. A qualified mental health professional can help. Skylight offers professional support for children and young people and has developed resources that can help with the lasting after effects of a disaster.
See links for further help.