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Understanding and Coping With Natural and Human-made Disasters

Traumatic events related to combat or deployments can occur during your military service. These experiences may cause stress reactions that can negatively impact your psychological health. However, it is important to remember that you and your family can face similar experiences following a natural or human-made disaster. 

On average, there is a natural or human-made disaster somewhere in the world every day. These include hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, industrial accidents, peacetime terrorist attacks and mass shootings. Like combat and deployments, these can result in: 

  • Fear for one’s life 

  • Exposure to death 

  • Feelings of extreme loss 

  • Disruption of social and community life 

  • Ongoing stress and hardship 

If you are a member of the reserve component, these concerns can be magnified. You may be activated to respond to a disaster in the same area where your home and family are affected. 

Short-Term Stress Reactions  

A disaster is a hard experience, but the stressors that follow can be just as challenging. These may include destruction of your home, evacuation, water and food shortages, loss of electricity and a lack of phone or internet services. These stressors can cause

  • Worry and anxiety 

  • Sadness 

  • Grief 

  • Survivor’s guilt 

  • Irritability and anger 

  • Sleep and appetite changes 

Watch for these and other warning signs in yourself and your loved ones. They are common reactions to traumatic events. Talk with a health care provider if you feel significant distress or your stress reactions interfere with daily life. Talking with a provider can prevent or manage ongoing and future concerns.  

Long-Term Challenges and Stress Reactions  

Stress reactions can continue even after basic needs like food, water, electricity and shelter return. Some reactions may not surface for days, weeks or even months. You may continue to struggle with the death of loved ones, personal injuries, fear that a disaster will recur, or loss of sentimental property like family photos.  

Stress reactions that continue, or worsen, for an extended period could indicate more serious psychological health concerns. These could lead to a diagnosis like: 

  • Adjustment Disorder 

  • Major Depressive Disorder 

  • Substance Use Disorder  

  • Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) 

For example, more than five percent of people who experience a disaster will develop PTSD within a year of the event. For this reason, it is important to get help early for psychological concerns. 

Helping Your Family Cope 

Disasters place strain on your entire family, so watch for stress reactions in loved ones. Adults may have similar reactions to yours. Children may show stress in other ways. Babies and toddlers may cry more. Young children may play by reenacting traumatic events. Older children may engage in risky behavior like substance misuse. Visit the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Coping With Disasters web page and Military Kids Connect for more about helping children cope. 

Coping and Recovering 

Coping after a disaster can be difficult. The following can help

  • Social support: Spending time with neighbors, friends and family can help you get through hard times. If they are coping with the same disaster, they likely understand what you are feeling.  

  • Positive attitude: Those who expect that things will work out are more likely to cope well and recover quickly. 

  • Confidence in your ability to face challenges: If you believe you can handle anything, you will tend to cope better.  

Reaching out is a sign of strength. If you or a loved one needs additional support, contact the Psychological Health Resource Center 24/7 to confidentially speak with trained health resource consultants, call 866-966-1020 or use the Real Warriors Live Chat

Additional Resources

Sources

Chan, C.S., Lower, S.R., Weber E., Rhodes, J.E. (2015). The contribution of pre- and postdisaster social support to short- and long-term mental health after Hurricanes Katrina: A longitudinal study of low-income survivors. Social Science & Medicine, 138, 38-43. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2015.05.037 

Bromet, E.J., Atwoli, L., Kawakami, N., Navarro-Mateu, F., Piotrowski, P., King, A.J., Aguilar-Gaxiola, S., . . . Kessler, R.C. (2017). Post-traumatic stress disorder associated with natural and human-made disasters in the World Mental Health Surveys. Psychological Medicine, 47(2), 227–241. doi:10.1017/S0033291716002026 

Federal Emergency Management Agency (2017). Academic Emergency Management and Related Courses (AEMRC) for the Higher Education Program (Chapter 6: Hazard, Vulnerability and Risk Analysis).  

Hoge, C. W., Castro, C. A., Messer, S. C., McGurk, D., Cotting, D. I., & Koffman, R. L. (2004). Combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, mental health problems, and barriers to care. The New England Journal of Medicine, 351(1), 13-22. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa040603 

Norris, F. H., Friedman, M. J., & Watson, P. J. (2002). 60,000 disaster victims speak: Part II, summary and implications of the disaster mental health research. Psychiatry, 65(3), 240-260. doi: 10.1521/psyc.65.3.240.20169 

Palinkas, L.A. (2015). Behavioral health and disasters: Looking to the future. Journal of Behavioral Health Services & Research, 42(1), 86–95. doi: 10.1007/s11414-013-9390-7 

Pietrzak R.H., Tracy M., Galea S., Kilpatrick D.G., Ruggiero K.J., Hamblin, J.L., Southwick, S.M., Norris, F.H. (2012). Resilience in the face of disaster: Prevalence and longitudinal course of mental disorders following Hurricane Ike. PLoS ONE 7(6). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0038964 

Math, S.B., Nirmala, M.C., Moirangthem, S., Kumar N.C. (2015). Disaster management: Mental health perspective. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 37(3), 261-271. doi: 10.4103/0253-7176.162915 

Tanielian, T., Jaycox, L. H. (2008). Invisible wounds of war: Psychological and cognitive injuries, their consequences, and services to assist recovery. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation. doi:10.7249/mg720ccf 

Udomratn, P. (2008). Mental health and the psychosocial consequences of natural disasters in asia. International Review of Psychiatry, 20(5), 441-444. doi:10.1080/09540260802397487 

Young, M. J., Tucker, P. M., Pfefferbaum, B. J., Khan, Q., Aston, C. E., Holmes, J., Thompson, J. (2008). Katrina survivors relocated to Oklahoma: A tale of two cities. Psychiatric Annals, 38(2), 125-133. doi: 10.3928/00485713-20080201-12