We all react to disasters in different ways. But, disasters often trigger powerful physical and emotional reactions which are designed to help us to survive. These, in turn, can trigger some or all of the following reactions:
- Physical: Heart racing, tension, exhaustion, difficulty sleeping
- Behaviour: Wanting to be with others (or alone), irritability, tearfulness, aggression, eating or drinking more (or less), and others
- Psychological: Racing thoughts, worries, fear, stress, anger, sadness, grief, guilt, and others
These reactions can be unpleasant and distressing, but are normal. Understanding your own reactions, and managing them will help you to stay safe before, during, and after a disaster. Some recommendations include:
1. Before a Disaster: Preparation
Some people are very good at preparing for a potential disaster and are well organised. Other people may feel overwhelmed and uncertain about what to do. If you are experiencing lots of stress and worry then use those feelings to trigger action. Acting now will help you and your loved ones to prepare and will help reduce anxiety and worry.
- Survival plans
- Survival and relocation kits (what to prepare)
2. During a Disaster
People act in different ways during a disaster, and each disaster is different. Things that help include staying as calm and composed as you can. This section describes things that can help to stay as calm as possible.
- Put your disaster plan into action and get to, and stay in a safe place. Following a plan helps control stress and anxiety. If you haven’t created a plan think about what you need to do to keep yourself and your loved ones safe.
- Keep informed (if possible, listen to ABC radio).
- Remember that your body will be circulating adrenaline and other hormones. This will make you feel tense and on edge. If you start to feel overwhelmed, practice controlled breathing (breathe in for 3 seconds, hold for 3 seconds, exhale for 3 seconds, repeat 10 times) to help reduce tension.
- Remember that what you say to yourself is important. Listen to the things you are saying to yourself and change negative comments to more helpful and realistic things.
- Help those around you. Everyone will be worried and stressed. Be mindful of what you say and how you say it, even if you are feeling tense.
- Keep your body hydrated and fueled. Rest as much as you can. Try to avoid too much coffee or alcohol, as they can heighten distress and make it difficult to rest.
- Follow the directions of emergency personnel.
3. After a Disaster
It is essential you look after both your physical and your emotional health after a disaster. Remember that each person reacts differently. But, here are some things that can help.
- Remember that you have been through a lot and are likely to be mentally and physically exhausted. Some people might immediately be ready to start tackling the big to-do list, but others might need to rest.
- Give yourself permission to feel relieved, sad, angry, guilty, worried, or any other emotions. It is also common to feel overwhelmed or tearful, and often people feel a mix of emotions.
- Be kind to yourself by letting go of unrealistic expectations about yourself and how you ‘should’ cope. Many people have trouble sleeping for several days or weeks afterwards and some have bad dreams or ‘flashbacks’ or worries and thoughts about ‘what they should/should not have done’.
- Remember that most of these reactions will fade over a month, but that some thoughts, worries, and reactions may re-appear for a short time in the future.
- Things that help emotional recovery include: Keeping a routine going; giving yourself ‘me’ time; spending time doing things that are important to you; being gentle about your own expectations; spending time with good people.
- If you are worried about your own emotional health, have thoughts about harming yourself or taking your own life then talk to a GP or mental health professional as soon as possible.
- Some other excellent resources include:
- Red Cross: Returning Home After A Bushfire
- Red Cross: Looking After Yourself and Your Family After a Disaster
- Beyond Blue: Bushfires and Mental Health
- Lifeline: Support in the Event of a Natural Disaster
- Headspace: How to Cope with the Stress of Natural Disasters
- ReachOut: How to Deal with the Stress of Bushfires, Floods, Earthquakes and Cyclones
The following services may also be helpful: