Preparing Mentally for Disasters

Guest post by Dr. Sandra Wartski, a clinical psychologist in North Carolina

September is National Preparedness Month, a time designated for people to plan ahead for emergencies at homes, businesses and in communities.  September is almost over, but it’s important to always be prepared for a disaster. We often think of ways to prepare physically for emergencies—storing bottled water, having a first aid kit and making a contact list of family and friends.

It’s also possible to prepare psychologically. Each disaster is different and requires some flexibility to expect the unexpected. Yet, there are issues and emotional reactions that are consistent in most disasters and can be anticipated.  The more you understand how an emergency can affect your thoughts and feelings, the better you can respond to the situation and regain footing.

Following a disaster, people can experience a variety of common reactions: feeling physically or mentally drained, having difficulty making decisions, staying focused, or feeling overwhelmed, numb, tired, sad, frustrated, irritable, lonely or worried. Over the years, these reactions have been referred to as “normal reactions to abnormal situations.”  Recognizing these reactions in yourself and others acknowledges the emergency and puts these thoughts and feelings in context.

Taking some action steps is generally helpful in the aftermath of an emergency, whether for your own well-being or for the assistance of someone else. It’s important to stay informed but also to limit the tendency to be too inundated with news and tragic stories.  Create a relaxing space that will reduce arousal and allow you to attend to your basic needs.  Engaging in healthy behaviors such as eating nutritious food, getting rest and exercise, as well as making positive social connections remain the underpinnings of coping with most any major stress.  Returning to your normal routines as soon as possible will also assist in getting life back on track.

Maintaining a positive attitude is critical. Remember that during larger disasters, disaster officials and emergency services personnel are working hard on recovery efforts.   It may also be important to recognize that we are indeed a resilient species. And, as stated in American Red Cross materials, “Disasters are inevitable but not insurmountable.”

So, despite the fact that different disasters bring forth new challenges, we know people always rely on the same core foundation of coping: stay positive, tap into our resilience, and expect the unexpected.

–Sandra Wartski, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist who is specially trained in disaster mental health. As a disaster mental health volunteer, Dr. Wartski has responded to numerous local and national disasters and trained other mental health professionals in disaster preparation and response.

Photo by Larry Fortmuller and the American Red Cross (via Flickr)

Print Friendly

One Response to “Preparing Mentally for Disasters”

  1. Sam   September 28, 2010 at 7:44 pm

    Thank you for helping to make this emergency preparation information available. The more of us that are prepared for unexpected emergencies, the safer we all are.