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Natural disasters have increased fivefold in the last 50 years, the World Meteorological Organization declared in a report in 2021. These extreme weather events can be traumatic to live through. A hurricane, wildfire, tornado, or severe flooding isn’t just scary to experience because it can claim lives. In one fell swoop, it can also destroy people’s homes and very livelihood.
The Effects of Weather-Related Tragedies and How to Cope
In the immediate aftermath of this kind of sudden and total loss, many people experience feelings of shock, disbelief, and grief. Naturally, too, the prospect of rebuilding from ground zero can be mentally and emotionally overwhelming. In some cases, the cumulative stress and trauma can adversely impact health and lead to issues like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)— but are there ways to cope that can help prevent or reduce these health issues?
For help with this question and others, we turned to FHE Health’s Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Beau A. Nelson, DBH, LCSW, who has experience helping people in the immediate aftermath of traumatic events. As one example, immediately after the tragedy at Surfside and at the request of the city, Dr. Nelson was on site providing counseling and support to those most affected. (Catch his reflections from that experience.)
In the below interview, Dr. Nelson suggests some tips for coping with the traumatic effects of a natural disaster and strategies and resources for self-care. He also addresses what to expect and how to debrief in the aftermath of an extreme weather event.
Healthy Ways to Cope with the Distress and Alleviate the Impact of a Crisis
There are many coping strategies can help relieve distress and reduce the traumatic impact of a crisis like a natural disaster. For example, previous research into various forms of coping has grouped these strategies into at least five “general categories”: problem-focused coping, emotion-focused coping, social support, religious coping, and meaning making.
The same research has suggested different coping tools within these categories that can help prevent or ease the adverse effects of trauma. For instance, in the emotion-focused category, distraction from intense emotions might be one way to cope, the researchers said, depending on the type of trauma. They cited social activities as a more effective form of distraction.
Dr. Nelson recommended the following coping strategies in the aftermath of a natural disaster:
- Talk about it and process your feelings, fears, and reactions.
- Take care of your health, by prioritizing sleep, eating healthy, staying hydrated, and engaging in quiet time and restorative activities.
- Limit exposure to images, stories, and triggering stimuli that reinforce traumatic responses.
- Pace yourself. Prioritize tasks and ask for help where needed. Take care of basics and then move one step at a time. Avoid overwhelming yourself as you can.
- Give yourself time to adjust. Feelings are normal. Good or bad, it will take time to feel grounded again. There’s no right or wrong, so be compassionate with yourself and get help when you need it.
What to Prioritize After a Natural Disaster
When a natural disaster results in the loss of a home or, worse yet, family or friends, many people find themselves operating in survival mode. Focusing on a few basic needs and priorities and letting go of the other stuff can make the ensuing days and weeks more manageable. It can also reduce stress and, in turn, the negative mental health impact of the trauma.
What should take priority during this time, according to Dr. Nelson? Physical safety; medical, physical, and emotional health; getting and staying connected with supports and resources; and a simple plan for each day— “don’t try and do everything,” he cautioned.
Common Reactions to a Natural Disaster?
“Shock, grief, sadness, and anxiety are normal responses to a traumatic event,” Dr. Nelson said. He added that “there are many different and valid reactions, depending on the situation,” and that “each one can be dealt with appropriately.”
“Sometimes these emotions last a long time, or you may cycle through many emotions,” Dr. Nelson said.
With respect to coping, what’s more important than the emotions you might experience or how they manifest is how you respond to those feelings. In other words, “your response determines your ability to cope.”
How to Debrief After a Natural Disaster and “Engage” with Tragedy
It’s a common search phrase on Google: People want to know “how to engage with tragedy.” On a personal and community level, Dr. Nelson emphasized the importance of debriefing after a natural disaster and offered some tips for how to do that:
- Talk about it.
- Allow yourself to feel and process your experience and reaction.
- Reframe your responses as appropriate when you’re tempted to judge or criticize them.
- Get support where you need it.
- Find ways to be present in the moment.
- Work toward acceptance where you can.
- Find healthy ways to cope that work for you.
Helpful Resources for Those Impacted by Natural Disasters?
In the event of a natural disaster, there may be government and non-profit resources on the scene to help with practical needs like relief needs, medical care, or emotional support. “Utilize them,” Dr. Nelson said. “Disaster response teams are very good at guiding people. Let them do their work. Once you are more stable, you can take the reins.”
“If you have a support network, reach out,” Dr. Nelson also advocated. He pointed out that “the needs right after a disaster are very different than the needs one year out.” His advice: “adjust; ask for assistance; and connect with community resources.”
Ultimately, “it takes time to rebuild, but you can do it. You don’t have to go it alone.”
Are you struggling with mental health issues after a natural disaster or another traumatic experience? We may be able to help. For a free consultation, contact FHE Health today