Disaster Psychology Revisited

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, many of the same psychological phenomena about which I’ve written following past disasters (wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, terrorist attacks, etc.), will likely play out once again.  So, here’s a concise rundown…

Disasters evoke a range of negative emotions, among them:

Anxiety — Before and during the disaster, there’s acute anxiety, fear (of being hurt or killed and/or of loved ones being hurt or killed). There’s also anxiety after the disaster, some of it specific (about whether and how one will go on in the aftermath of the disaster), and some of it generalized (disasters can be disillusioning with respect to people’s senses of control/predictability in life).

Grief — There’s grief, for the losses incurred in the disaster (obviously, people grieve the losses of loved ones, but the loss of one’s home and its contents can stir up a lot of grief, too).

Anger — There’s often anger (at oneself or others who didn’t take the disaster seriously enough and incurred, or caused others to incur, preventable harm; at others who are perceived not to have done or not to be doing enough to help one survive or recover from the disaster; even at God or the universe for not preventing the disaster in the first place).

Some of these emotions (like fear) may tend to be felt more acutely by children than adults, while the reverse may tend to be true for other emotions (like anger).  Such emotions also need not be limited to people directly affected by a disaster — people can feel them vicariously, too, even from thousands of miles away.  In the wake of Sandy, I personally feel empathetic grief for the many Americans, including some friends and acquaintances, who’ve suffered losses.  I also feel anger at Americans who didn’t take the impending disaster seriously and either got hurt/killed (causing their loved ones to suffer) or put emergency responders at unnecessary risk (I have a brother who’s a firefighter in Kansas, and I can only imagine how angry I’d feel if he were injured or killed trying to rescue some jerk who, for instance, went kayaking, surfing, or swimming in a hurricane).

There are things we can do and/or encourage to help others (and ourselves) in the wake of disasters, among them:

Listening/talking — For many, it helps to talk about what happened and how they feel about it.  Mental-health professionals are trained to help people process their memories and emotions in the wake of disasters, but most survivors don’t seem to need or seek that level of intervention — most may tend to get some relief from the willingness of family, friends, even unknown volunteers, to listen to them, help them to digest what happened, and help them to think through what they need to do next.  Memories and emotions may tend to be sort of “jumbled up” in survivors’ minds after traumatic events, and talking about these (at age-appropriate levels), for many (though not all), may tend to help survivors to organize their memories and emotions such that these become less impairing/intrusive and more manageable (but if not — if impairment/intrusiveness is chronic or severe — I recommend consulting a professional).  (And don’t forget, this goes for emergency responders as well as survivors — as the first ones on the scene of a disaster, they often experience profoundly traumatic things that they simply can’t take time to feel and process until their jobs are done; it’s an important psychological aspect of their heroism.)

Faith — For many people of faith, it helps to put tragic events into a faith perspective.  Making sense of why bad things happen to good people can be quite difficult, and clergy members, as well as fellow adherents to one’s faith, can often be helpful in this regard.  Personally, the only way in which I can reconcile the existence of a benevolent Creator with some of the terrible things that happen on this planet is to conclude that, in the grand scheme of things, these events mean far less than they mean in the context of our human lifespans (i.e. that the Creator generally doesn’t intervene to stop such events simply because what happens here in a lifetime is but an instant in “eternity time.”)  (It’s for this reason that I cringe whenever I hear disaster survivors say, “Thank God my [child, home, and/or business] was spared!” — I know they don’t mean to, but they’re implying that God decided that their child, home, or business deserved to be spared while others’ didn’t.)

Taking action (donating/volunteering) — For those directly affected by a disaster, getting to work on the rebuilding process (rebuilding one’s life, home, etc.), and for those less directly affected by a disaster, donating relief items and volunteering to assist in relief efforts, can be helpful both to survivors/recipients and to donors/volunteers.  It helps to reduce both people’s specific anxiety about their futures and people’s general anxiety about the predictability of their lives — it helps to restore people’s sense of control over what happens in their lives by reinforcing the idea that, even when bad things can’t be prevented, we can still do something about them.  Often, in among all of the negative emotions that are felt in the context of a disaster, profoundly positive emotions emerge as well — emotions like gratitude, pride, and compassion — as we see the best of humanity come out in response to the worst of events.


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