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Traumatic Stress

How to Recover From Disasters and Other Traumatic Events

Emotional and Psychological Trauma In This Article

The impact of a natural disaster or traumatic event goes far beyond physic al damage. The emotional toll can result in a wide range of intense, confusing, and sometimes frightening emotions. Just as it takes time to clear the rubble and repair the damage, it takes time to recover your emotional equilibrium and rebuild your life. No matter how hopeless or helpless you feel, there are specific things you can do to help yourself and your loved ones cope with traumatic stress.

The emotional aftermath of disasters and traumatic events

Natural disasters and other catastrophic events, such as motor vehicle accidents, plane crashes, tornados, and terrorist attacks, are extraordinarily stressful—both to survivors and observers. Such disasters shatter your sense of security, making you feel helpless and vulnerable in a dangerous world. Whether or not you were directly impacted by the traumatic event, it’s normal to feel anxious, scared, and uncertain about what the future may bring.

Usually, these unsettling thoughts and feelings fade as life starts to return to normal. You can assist the process by keeping the following in mind:

  • People react in different ways to disasters and traumatic events. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to respond. Don’t tell yourself (or anyone else) what you should be thinking, feeling, or doing.
  • Avoid obsessively thinking about the disastrous event. Repetitious thinking about fearful or painful experiences can overwhelm your nervous system, making it harder to think clearly.
  • Ignoring your feelings will slow the healing process. It may seem better in the moment to avoid experiencing your emotions, but they exist whether you're paying attention to them or not. Even intense feelings will pass if you simply allow yourself to feel what you feel.

Common reactions to traumatic events and disaster

Following a traumatic event, it’s normal to feel a wide range of intense emotions and physical reactions. These reactions often come and go in waves. There may be times when you feel jumpy and anxious, and other times when you feel disconnected and numb.

Normal emotional responses to traumatic events

  • Shock and disbelief – you may have a hard time accepting the reality of what happened
  • Fear – that the same thing will happen again, or that you’ll lose control or break down
  • Sadness – particularly if people you know died
  • Helplessness – the sudden, unpredictable nature of natural disasters and accidents may leave you feeling vulnerable and helpless
  • Guilt – that you survived when others died, or that you could have done more to help
  • Anger – you may be angry at God or others you feel are responsible
  • Shame – especially over feelings or fears you can’t control
  • Relief – you may feel relieved that the worst is over, and even hopeful that your life will return to normal

Normal physical responses to traumatic events

It’s important to know what the physical symptoms of traumatic stress look like, so they don’t scare you. They will go away if you don’t fight them:

  • Trembling or shaking
  • Pounding heart
  • Rapid breathing
  • Lump in throat; feeling choked up
  • Stomach tightening or churning
  • Feeling dizzy or faint
  • Cold sweats
  • Racing thoughts

Disaster recovery tip 1: Move more

Exercise can burn off adrenaline, release endorphins, and calm your nervous system, especially if you really focus on your body and how it feels as you move.

  • Exercise that is rhythmic and engages both your arms and legs—such as walking, running, swimming, basketball, even dancing or even drumming—works well if you focus on how your body feels.
  • Notice the sensation of your feet hitting the ground, for example, or the rhythm of your breathing, or the feeling of wind on your skin.
  • Rock climbing, boxing, weight training, or martial arts can make it easier to focus on your body movements—after all, if you don’t, you could get hurt.
  • Try to exercise for 30 minutes or more—or if it’s easier, three 10-minute spurts of exercise per day are just as good. Move as often as you can throughout the day.

Traumatic stress recovery tip 2: Engage socially

You may be tempted to withdraw from friends and social activities following a traumatic event, but connecting face to face with other people is vital to recovery.

  • Engaging socially doesn’t necessarily mean talking about the traumatic event. Comfort comes from feeling connected and involved with others you trust. 
  • Do “normal” things with friends and loved ones, things that have nothing to do with the disaster.
  • If you live alone or your social network is limited, reach out to others and make new friends.
  • Connect with other survivors of the traumatic event or disaster or participate in memorials, events, and other public rituals.
  • Take advantage of support groups, church gatherings, and community organizations.
  • Comfort others or volunteer your time for a cause that’s important to you. As well as helping you to connect to others, it can also challenge the sense of helplessness that contributes to trauma.

Traumatic stress recovery tip 3: Make stress reduction a priority

While a certain amount of stress is normal, and even helpful, as you face the challenges that come in the aftermath of a disaster, too much stress will get in the way of recovery.

Relieve stress in the moment

  • Mindful breathing. To quickly calm yourself in any situation, simply take 60 breaths, focusing your attention on each out breath.
  • Sensory input. Does listening to an uplifting song make you feel calm? Or smelling ground coffee? Or maybe petting an animal works quickly to make you feel centered? Everyone responds to sensory input a little differently, so experiment to find what works best for you. See Stress Relief in the Moment.

An exercise to help you feel grounded in times of emotional stress and turmoil

Sit on a chair, feel your feet on the ground, and your back supported by the chair; look around you and pick six objects that have red or blue in them. This should allow you to feel in the present, more grounded and in your body. Notice how your breath gets deeper and calmer. Alternately, you may want to go outdoors and find a peaceful place to sit on the grass, and feel supported by the ground.

Source: Emotional First Aid, Gina Ross, MFCC, and Peter Levine, Ph.D.

Make time to relax

  • Practice relaxation techniques such as meditating, yoga, listening to soothing music, walking in a beautiful place, or visualizing a favorite spot.
  • Schedule time for activities that bring you joy—a favorite hobby or pastime, a chat with a cherished friend.
  • Use your downtime to relax. Savor a good meal, read a book, take a bath, or enjoy an uplifting or funny movie.
  • Get plenty of sleep.  Lack of sleep places considerable stress on your mind and body and makes it more difficult to maintain your emotional balance. Aim for somewhere between 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night

Reestablish a routine—structure is comforting

There is comfort in the familiar. After a disaster, getting back to your normal routine as much as possible will help you minimize stress.

  • Even if your work or school routine is disrupted, structure your day with regular times for eating, sleeping, exercising, and spending time with friends.
  • Do things that keep your mind occupied (read, watch a movie, cook, play with your kids), so you’re not dedicating all your attention to the traumatic event.

Traumatic stress recovery tip 4: Minimize media exposure

While some people regain a sense of control by watching media coverage of the traumatic event or observing the recovery effort, others find the reminders upsetting. Excessive exposure may be further traumatizing.

  • Limit your media exposure to the disaster. Do not watch the news just before bed. Take a complete break if the coverage is making you feel overwhelmed
  • Try to avoid distressing images and video clips. Read the newspaper or magazines rather than watching television.

Traumatic stress recovery tip 5: Accept your feelings

After a traumatic event, you may experience all kinds of difficult and surprising emotions, such as shock, anger, and guilt. These emotions are normal reactions to the loss of safety and security (as well as life, limb, and property) that comes in the wake of a disaster. Accepting these feelings and allowing yourself to feel what you feel, is necessary for healing.

Dealing with traumatic grief and other painful emotions

  • Give yourself time to heal and to mourn the losses you’ve experienced.
  • Don’t try to force the healing process.
  • Be patient with the pace of recovery.
  • Be prepared for difficult and volatile emotions.
  • Allow yourself to feel whatever you’re feeling without judgment or guilt.
  • Learn to reconnect to uncomfortable emotions without becoming overwhelmed. See our Emotional Intelligence Toolkit.

When to seek treatment for traumatic stress

Usually, feelings of anxiety, numbness, confusion, guilt, and despair following a disaster or traumatic event will start to fade within a relatively short time. However, if your traumatic stress reaction is so intense and persistent that it’s getting in the way of your ability to function, you may need help from a mental health professional—preferably a trauma specialist.

Traumatic stress warning signs

  • It's been six weeks, and you're not feeling any better
  • You’ve having trouble functioning at home and work
  • You’re experiencing terrifying memories, nightmares, or flashbacks
  • You’re having an increasingly difficult time connecting and relating to others
  • You’re experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings
  • You’re avoiding more and more things that remind you of the disaster or traumatic event

Helping children cope with traumatic stress

Comforting Child

After a disaster or traumatic event, children need extra reassurance and support. Do your best to create an environment where your kids feel safe to communicate what they’re feeling and to ask questions.

  • While you should tailor the information you share according to your child’s age, it’s important to be honest. Don’t say nothing’s wrong if something is wrong, and don’t make promises you can’t keep.
  • Provide your kids with ongoing opportunities to talk about what they went through or what they’re seeing on TV. Encourage them to ask questions and express their concerns but don't force them to talk.
  • If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t be afraid to admit it. Don’t jeopardize your child’s trust in you by making something up.
  • The traumatic event or disaster may bring up unrelated fears and issues in your kids. Acknowledge and validate these concerns, even if they don’t seem relevant to you.
  • Limit your child’s exposure to graphic images and videos. As much as you can, watch news reports of the disaster with your children.
  • Remember that children often personalize situations. They may worry about their own safety, even if the traumatic event occurred far away. Reassure your child and help place the situation in context.
  • Watch for physical signs of stress. The symptoms of traumatic stress may appear as physical complaints such as headaches, stomach pains, or sleep disturbances.

If you want to learn skills for connecting to others in ways that reduce stress and anxiety, FEELING LOVED can help.

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Resources and references

General information about emotional and psychological trauma

Common Reactions After Trauma – Guide to the common symptoms, effects, and problems that can result from emotional or psychological trauma. (National Center for PTSD)

What is Psychological Trauma? – In-depth introduction to emotional or psychological trauma, including the causes, symptoms, treatments, and effects. (Sidran Institute)

Emotional First Aid (PDF) – Self-help steps to take in dealing with traumatic stress. (Volunteer Today)

Trauma treatment and therapy

How to Choose a Therapist for Post-Traumatic Stress and Dissociative Conditions – Advice on how to choose a trauma therapist. (Sidran Institute)

A Brief Description of EMDR Therapy – Covers the eight phases of EMDR therapy involved in the treatment of trauma. (EMDR Network)

Trauma recovery and self-help

Recovering from Trauma – Article on the necessity of processing emotional trauma in treatment if we are to recover and heal. (Psychology Today)

Dealing With the Effects of Trauma: A Self-Help Guide (PDF) – Guide to the healing journey, including coping strategies, where to find help for emotional trauma, and how to support recovery. (SAMHSA’s National Mental Health Information Center)

Trauma in children and adolescents

Helping a Child Manage Fears – Article on helping a child cope with traumatic events. Includes tips for helping your child and a list of common childhood reactions to trauma. (Sidran Institute)

Understanding Child Traumatic Stress – Learn how emotional or psychological trauma in children differs from trauma in adult. Includes causes, symptoms, and recovery factors. (The National Child Traumatic Stress Network)

Delving deeper into psychological and emotional trauma

Trauma, Attachment, and Stress Disorders: Rethinking and Reworking Developmental Issues – Explains the brain-based view of emotional trauma and how it affects child development. (Trauma Resources)

What other readers are saying

“Very useful article for us in this disaster.” ~ Nepal

“I am experiencing traumatic stress and am having a very hard time coping. I have given up on [therapy] and doubt that I will ever go to one again. I just found this website this morning and have been looking through it for the past two hours. I already feel a million times better from the things that I have read, watched, and heard. And I am feeling better because of knowing about the numerous resources that are available to me in the future. I don’t understand why more mental health professionals do not use these techniques.” ~ California

Authors: Melinda Smith, M.A., and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. Last updated: May 2016.