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Emotional Aftershocks: Handling Feelings after a Disaster

Traumatic events can cause emotional aftershocks

Experiencing Emotional Aftershocks

Just like aftershocks can follow an earthquake, traumatic stress reactions are like emotional “aftershocks” that we may experience following a personal, community, or national disaster. Symptoms may begin immediately, but could appear weeks, months, or (occasionally) years later. Most begin within three months of the triggering event.

The sufferings of military men and women who come home from war with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have taught us a lot about human response to intense stress and trauma. These folks often experience flashbacks, anxiety, depression, emotional numbing, trouble sleeping, hallucinations, exaggerated responses to loud noises, and much more. We see similar responses in victims of traumatic events like natural disasters, house fires, terrorist attacks, car accidents, and witnessing criminal acts, and because of increased understanding of PTSD, we can more easily recognize and address it.

Understanding the Roots of Emotional Aftershocks

The severity of our reaction to trauma is influenced by several factors:

  • The intensity and length of the traumatic event
  • Other stressful factors we’re already dealing with
  • The length of time since the event happened (usually the intensity of our reaction and feelings will decrease over time)
  • Long-term results of the event, such as the loss of loved ones or pets, long-term or permanent disabilities, the loss of housing and personal belongings, lasting psychological damage, etc.
  • Whether we have prior experience with the specific type of event (or something similar). This prior experience can be positive (and actually help us with our reaction) or it can be negative, making a difficult situation worse. For example, a person who is accustomed to frequent earthquakes may not be quite as terrified as a “first-timer” (positive). On the other hand, a person who has already been through a house fire may be even more terrified of a second event (negative).

In order to overcome any negative responses we have to traumatic situations, we first have to recognize the response and be able to associate it with the traumatic event. After a traumatizing event (or before a predicted event), watch for the following stress responses in yourself and others.

Traumatic Stress Responses:

  • Fear and anxiety may mount before a predicted or anticipated event as information becomes available through the media or authorities.
  • During the event, feelings such as panic, uncertainty, fight-or-flight response, and terror for the lives and safety of self and others may predominate.
  • Some people are amazingly able to stay calm and hold themselves together during the crisis, only to fall apart afterwards.
  • The severity of the situation may only hit home after the event, when the person begins to realize the extent of their loss—of loved ones or property—or faces the extreme frustration that occurs when they cannot find out what happened to either.
  • Later responses may appear in the forms of nightmares, flashbacks, hallucinations, generalized anxiety, restlessness, irritability, anger, sadness, periods of unexpected crying, self-destructive behavior (such as drinking too much), memory problems, difficulty maintaining close personal relationships, and fear of crowds, strangers, or being alone. Anger is frequently a secondary emotion, following closely on the heels of fear or frustration. People often experience guilt at having survived an event that took the lives of many around them.
  • Physical symptoms such as digestive disturbances, dizziness, exhaustion, pounding heart, trouble sleeping, or headaches are common.

Coping with Your Own Emotional Aftershocks 

  • Get extra rest and relaxation, especially if you can’t sleep well 
  • Listen to relaxing music
  • Get some form of exercise
  • If you've experienced loss, attend or take part in funerals and memorials and allow yourself to grieve
  • Establish as normal a schedule as possible as soon as you can
  • Talk to friends about your feelings, as well as to counselors and/or religious leaders
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs (except medications prescribed by a doctor)
  • Don’t fight against recurring nightmares and flashbacks—these are one way our minds deal with trauma. The episodes should gradually decrease and become less painful. If, however, you find them increasing in intensity or length, or causing you to feel a lack of motivation, consult a professional.
  • If those around you are saying you need to get help, pay attention to them! There’s no virtue in being miserable or reluctant to accept help in these situations. Often we think we should be strong enough to “just deal” with what we've gone through, not realizing how deeply rooted and lasting the damage is.

Helping with the Emotional Aftershocks of Others

  • Listen carefully, even if people repeat themselves and dwell on the same topics. Allow them to share their thoughts and feelings; avoid dismissing what they say, but rather hear them out and be there for them.
  • Spend time with them. You may need to seek them out, especially if they withdraw and “just want to be left alone.” On the other hand, do allow them some private time to grieve their losses. Don’t immediately try to cheer them up with what is normally a “fun” activity. After they've had time to grieve, however, a little normalcy may be just what they need.
  • Offer assistance if you see a need, even if they haven’t asked for help. Many people have a difficult time asking for help with everyday tasks, which can feel overwhelming when a person is traumatized. Child-care, housekeeping or home repairs, yard work, and help with transportation or shopping are good places to start.
  • Help them avoid alcohol and drugs (except medications prescribed by a doctor)
  • Recognize that people grieve in their own way and within their own timeframe. Never say, “Oh, for heaven’s sake! Aren’t you over that yet? Let it go.” They will when they can.
  • If the person exhibits anger or has emotional outbursts, try not to take it personally. He or she may very well have a reservoir of anger with no way to direct it at the cause of their pain.
  • If you see any signs or threats of suicidal or homicidal behavior, get the person professional help right away.

Looking to the future

  • Make an updated family or personal emergency plan.
  • Replenish or establish a disaster supply kit for yourself and family members.
  • Act on the things you wish you had done before the traumatic event you experienced—build a shelter, fortify your home, obtain food and water storage, learn survival skills, get fire and carbon monoxide monitors, etc.

Some things we experience in our lives can cause psychological pain as severe as the pain of traumatic physical injuries—and in many disaster situations, both types of pain are present. We need to give and accept help in these times, and support one another through our difficulties. Though in the wake of disasters there are some people who loot and take advantage of weakness, we see more in the ways of families, neighbors, and communities rallying to help each other through tough times, a heartwarming and encouraging reflection on the state of humanity. Helping ease the pain of emotional aftershocks is a vital part of the aid we can give—and receive.

See also our Insight Article, “Preserving Sanity in a Disaster Situation”

For immediate emotional help, call the Disaster Distress Hotline at 1-800-985-5990.









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