Dealing with the emotional impact after a natural disaster

Mental Health

by David Blackburn, PhD

Sep 9, 2017

Allow me to set the scene, although it is a familiar one if you’ve seen the news in recent weeks…

Imagine you’ve arrived home from work, settled in your recliner to rest from the day and to watch the evening news. You hear there is a storm brewing off the coast and are wondering what the coming days may bring. Then, you hear it, “This tropical storm has not only formed into a hurricane, but is quickly gaining strength. Based on the projected path, it will likely become one of the strongest storms and will cause wind damage, many inches of rain, storm surge flooding problems and likely to spawn tornadic activity in outlying areas.”

If the above scene really happened to you, what would you do?

Would you jump in the car, fill up the gas tank and go to the store to buy supplies? Start making a record of all of your belongings in case you needed to make an insurance claim? Decide that the worst isn’t going to happen to you since it never has before, so you’ll just wait and see? Or would you freeze and do nothing; just go about life like every other day?

I’m sure you could think of many other ways you might react and you may do all, some or none of these things at all.

But one thing you may not think about when your life is not in danger is how you plan on dealing with the stressors and emotions that often accompany the aftermath of tragedy.

Even though Hurricane Harvey didn’t directly impact our homes and businesses in Central and North Texas, many of us were and are involved working the area evacuation shelters and/or gathering items for those in need. We can use that involvement and the blessing we didn’t receive storm damage as a means to bolster our own spirit as we strive to help those in need.

Steps to Moving Forward

If you are feeling overwhelmed by the tragedy of natural disasters, such as Hurricane Harvey, and the destructive influence they are having on so many people, you are not alone!

First, there is no reason to have a sense of guilt about this — you did not cause the storms, therefore, guilt may not actually be the “name” of the emotion you are experiencing. It may be more of a sense of empathy and sympathy for others. Give this some thought as “guilt” may cause you to feel overwhelmed and are unable to help. But if your emotions are actual empathy for others, then that is motivation to help others and move forward rather than wallowing in a static sense of being overwhelmed.

Next, what do you do if you find all of these storms and destruction “depressing”? It’s likely you are not actually “depressed”, meaning you meet the symptoms and duration for a diagnosis of depression. Again, think about the emotions you are actually experiencing. Maybe it’s just a great deal of sadness and sympathy for those affected by the storms.

It’s very logical you might be sad, but instead of allowing that sadness to dominate your thinking, use it to motivate you to help others as much as you can.

And what if you are experiencing the sense of “I’m just overwhelmed and can’t even decide what to do or how to help”? Be aware that you are not alone! Many of your friends, neighbors, coworkers and family may feel the same way. By coming to the realization that you are indecisive and weighed-down can actually be a relief! How so? Instead of continuing to carry the burden of not knowing how to help, you can adapt by taking a more logical approach in determining the best way to share your resources (time, money, goods, etc.) versus allowing pure emotion to either stop you from helping or into making a poor choice (i.e. giving to a false ‘charity’).

By now you may have detected a theme running through this brief article: it’s one of not jumping to conclusions when you name your emotion but instead to take some time to ponder what you are experiencing. Try to rename your emotion into one that puts you in control and empowers you to move forward.

It is just fine, and maybe even expected, to shed tears, to have concern (versus worry) and to assist in the ways that suit you best. The primary task you have is self-care in order to be your best so that you can help those in real need, right now.

About the Author

David Blackburn, PhD, specializes in adult mental health, cognitive behavior psychotherapy and physical medicine and rehabilitation at Baylor Scott & White Mental Health Clinic – Temple. The clinic provides an array of care for your family from individual therapy to couples, family or group therapy.

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