Disasters: What are they and how can I feel more prepared?

Do you feel like there is a new “disaster” each time you turn on the news? Do you feel prepared to navigate a “disaster” if it impacted you or your community?

Susan Peek, LCSW is a clinician in the Greensboro Office. Before coming to CPA, she worked for many years providing various levels of care to individuals following a disaster. Proper disaster response is crucial for individuals and communities. Continue reading to learn more about disasters and ways you can be prepared to navigate them.

What defines a disaster?

The etymology of the word “disaster” means “bad stars” or “ill-starred.” The modern definition is any event caused by nature, technology or humans that causes loss of life or serious injury, damage to property, or significant disruption to people’s lives.

Why is emotional support important following a disaster?

We know that providing immediate support to those affected by a disaster can help build resilience and improve individual and community ability to recover more quickly. Providing the basics of safety, medical care, shelter, food and water can help stabilize people so that they can better undertake the emotional aspects of recovery. Psychological First Aid and Disaster Mental Health services help people understand their emotional reactions to what they have experienced and helps them to identify what they need to recover. What I need to help me recover may look very different from what you need, and when we are in shock it is difficult to identify what we need. Part of what Psychological First Aid and Disaster Mental Health services do is help people stabilize emotionally and name what they need for further recovery.

How to be “best prepared?”

We know that the better prepared folks are for a disaster, the faster they recover. Preparation can serve us in multiple aspects. Being prepared and having a plan can help alleviate some anxiety. Knowing what to do or that you have supplies at the ready can help redirect the focus from anxiety to a plan of action. Preparation and planning also decreases delay in reaction times, decreases the chance of potential injury or loss of life, and helps people focus in the moment instead of being paralyzed in fear.

It’s important to think about emotional well-being and safety as well as our physical needs and safety. Thinking about what helps you keep calm and putting some items in a “go bag” can be helpful. Items like playing cards, games, fidgets, stuffed animals, music, pictures, etc., can be helpful to have on hand to release nervous energy or make long periods of waiting more bearable. We often talk about building “social capital” or making connections with neighbors and others in our communities so that when disaster strikes, we know that we can call on others should we need help, or we can go help someone else. These are all things that contribute to building resiliency and the ability to bounce back after a disaster.

How do disasters intersect with mental health?

Most everyone has experienced a disaster of some sort whether it be a house fire, hurricane, or a vicarious witnessing of others’ experiences. Emotions run strong during disasters and recovery, and it is important to be aware of how they affect our thoughts and actions. Looking for the physical cues that we are experiencing strong emotions can be helpful in addressing them. We often point to “the extremes” such as not sleeping or sleeping too much, not eating or eating too much, being hyper vigilant or dissociating and completely shutting down. Feeling unsafe often tends to be at the root of most reactions, so identifying and providing what one needs to feel safe can be effective.

Experiencing a disaster is not something that people “just get over”. There are short-term emotional responses such as shock, fear, and anger but the long-term emotional responses like grief, depression, and anxiety can sometimes be more challenging to address. It is important to be aware of both the short and long-term emotional effects of experiencing a disaster and how they may play a part in the recovery process.


Disaster Preparedness Checklists:

The American Red Cross


Coping Tips and Psychological First Aid:


Children and Disasters:

National Child Traumatic Stress Network

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