Natural disasters cause emotional distress. Many of our patients, staff, friends, and family members have been affected by Hurricane Irma in one way or another. We are fortunate and grateful that the storm weakened before reaching Tampa, sparing us from the devastation experienced in areas such as southern Florida and many parts of the Caribbean. However, we know that many Tampa area residents are dealing with various aftereffects of the storm, and that Irma has taken an emotional toll on many of us.
If you’re feeling shaken, anxious, or grief-stricken in the wake of Hurricane Irma, know that this is perfectly normal. Even if you haven’t experienced physical injury or loss, a natural disaster can still lead to strong emotional reactions. Understanding your response to a distressing event can help you devise coping strategies that move you towards emotional recovery.
Common reactions following a disaster
Following a natural disaster or other traumatic event, people often experience emotional reactions such as:
- Unpredictable or intense feelings. You may feel moody or irritable, or may be experiencing feelings of anxiety, grief, and overwhelm.
- Difficulty concentrating. Memories of the incident may make it difficult to focus or make decisions, and may trigger physical reactions such as sweating or rapid heartbeat.
- Changes to behavior patterns. Some people may find it difficult to sleep or lose their appetite. Others may have the opposite reaction, and find themselves sleeping more than usual or overeating.
- Sensitivity to environment. Loud noises or other environmental triggers may cause you more anxiety than usual.
- Strained relationships. You may find yourself experiencing increased conflict with family members or coworkers. It’s also common to withdraw from social activities or feel isolated.
- Physical symptoms related to heightened stress. Symptoms such as headaches, nausea, or chest pain are common following a disaster event, and may require medical attention if they don’t go away on their own. Pre-existing medical conditions could also be exacerbated by a traumatic event.
How to respond to disaster-related emotional distress
Research indicates that most people able eventually able to recover from disaster-related emotional distress and resume normal functioning, but it may be several months before you feel completely normal again. The following behaviors can help support your emotional well-being during this time and help you regain a sense of safety and stability.
- Acknowledge what you’ve been through. Recognize that you have experienced something distressing, and that it is normal to experience feelings of anxiety, grief, or even guilt. Even if you were not impacted to the extent that other people were, your reactions are valid, and it may take some time for you to recover.
- Engage in healthy behaviors that will support your emotional well-being. Avoid using drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism, as this will only delay actual coping and recovery. Get plenty of sleep and eat healthy meals that will support your immune system. You may find comfort in relaxation and stress management techniques such as yoga or meditation.
- Seek out social support. If possible, talk to friends and family members who are willing to listen and able to offer support. Or, find a local support group where you can share your experiences with others who are feeling the same way. Group discussions can help show you that you are not alone in what you are experiencing, and can be especially helpful if you have a limited personal support system.
- Find ways to express your emotions, such as journaling or engaging in other creative activities.
- Establish routines. Simply establishing regular mealtimes, going to bed and getting up on a regular schedule, or following a gentle exercise program can help create a sense of order during a distressing period.
- Practice self care by engaging in activities that you enjoy and that help you relax. This may mean taking a bath, reading a good book, or taking a walk through a beautiful park.
- Avoid making major life decisions. Understand that your ability to make decisions may be impaired when you’re in a recovery period, and undertaking major changes — such as a move or a new job — may be even more stressful than usual.
- Know when to seek help. If you are still experiencing emotional distress after several months, you may want to seek assistance from a licensed mental health professional. To find a psychologist in your area, visit the American Psychological Association’s Provider Locator.
Medically reviewed by Jay J. Garcia, MD on September 14, 2017