Stress After Disaster

Stress is poison. - Agave Powers

After a disaster you should immmediatly prepare yourself mentally and emotionally for any situations you may face. You should be aware that people are effected in many different ways following a crisis. You should recognize any emotional effects on your group and try to respond to them, your primary goal should be survival. Recovering from a disaster will not be easy and could take an extended amount of time.


"S" is for STOP. Take a deep breath, sit down if possible, calm yourself and recognize that whatever has happened to get you here is past and cannot be undone. You are now in a survival situation and that means . . .

"T" for THINK. Your most important survival asset is your brain. Use it! Don't Panic! Move with deliberate care. Think first, so you have no regrets. Take no action, even a foot step, until you have thought it through. Unrecoverable mistakes and injuries, potentially deadly in a survival situtaion, occur when we act before we engage our brain. Then . . .

"O" is for OBSERVE. Take a look around you. Assess your situation and options. Take stock of your supplies, equipment, surroundings, your personal capabilities and, if there are any, the capabilities of your fellow survivors. Are you the best equipped to lead in this new survival situation?

"P" is for PLAN. Prioritize your immediate needs and develop a plan to systematically deal with the emergency and contingencies. Then, follow your plan. Adjust your plan only as necessary to deal with changing circumstances.

Automatic Stress Response

During an emergency, people react differently than they do in everyday life. This is because we have a natural set of built-in reactions that help us survive crises. This automatic stress response is activated by our nervous system, telling the body to do things that increase our chances of physical survival.

  • It starts with alarm, during which normal activities are stopped.
  • Next, people orient themselves by looking around and quickly summing up the situation.
  • Next, people tend to respond in 3 ways:
    • fight –  fighters try to tackle a situation head on. They are good at dealing with problems directly. However, they can be overly aggressive.
    • flight – flighters remove themselves from the stress. They are good at getting out of bad situations. However, they may avoid stress by running away and never resolve the problem.
    • freeze – freezers will under-react. They are good at taking time to wait and see what to do next. However they may be passive in situations where action is needed.

  • Finally, there is a discharge of energy after which the person returns to everyday ways of thinking and feeling.

Reactions to Stress

Shock and Numbness–At first you may be in a state of shock and may feel numb and confused. You also may feel detached - as if you are watching a movie or having a bad dream that will not end. This numbness protects you from feeling the full impact of what has happened all at once.

Intense Emotion–You may feel overpowered by sorrow or grief. As shock begins to wear off, it is not unusual to feel intense grief and cry uncontrollably. While some parts of our society frown on emotional behavior, this emotional release is an important part of grieving for most people. It is unhealthy to hold back or "swallow" your painful feelings and can actually make the grieving process last longer. If you are uncomfortable with these feelings, you may want to seek help from a counselor or minister or other victims who understand what you are going through.

Fear–You may feel intense fear and startle easily, become extremely anxious when you leave your home or are alone, or experience waves of panic. Someone you love has been suddenly and violently killed while going about his or her daily life. You had no time to prepare psychologically for such an incident, so you may feel intense anxiety and horror. You may be afraid that the terrorist will return and harm you or your loved ones again. Crime shatters normal feelings of security and trust and the sense of being able to control events. Once you have been harmed by crime, it is natural to be afraid and suspicious of others. These feelings will go away or lessen over time.

Guilt–Victims who were injured in the traumatic disaster want to understand why the crime happened, and families wonder why they lost a loved one. Some people find it easier to accept what happened if they blame themselves in some way. This is a normal way of trying to once again feel a sense of control over their lives. Victims often feel guilt and regret for things they did or did not say or do and that they should have protected a loved one better or have done something to prevent his or her death. Survivors spend a lot of time thinking, "If only I had..." This guilt does not make sense because the circumstances that lead to terrorism usually cannot be controlled and are hard to predict. Get rid of imagined guilt. You did the best you could at the time. If you are convinced that you made mistakes or have real guilt, consider professional or piritual counseling. You will need to find a way to forgive yourself. Feelings of guilt can be made worse by people who point out what they would have done differently in the same situation. People who say such things are usually trying to convince themselves that such a tragedy could never happen to them.

As the leader of a group you face the responsibility of taking aside people who, with good intentions, are only adding to the suffering of the victims by "second guessing" what should have been done. These well-intentioned people are only adding to the feelings of guilt felt by victims. These people need to be gently told to "do something else" more helpful. If you give them something to do, they will not bother the victims.

Anger and Resentment–It is normal for you to be angry and outraged at the tragedy, the person or persons who caused the tragedy, or someone you believe could have prevented the crime. (Frequently, this is anger at Law Enforcement) If a suspect is arrested, you might direct your anger toward that person. You may become angry with other family members, friends, doctors, police, prosecutors, God, or even yourself and may resent well-meaning people who say hurtful things and do not understand what you "as a victim" are going through. Feelings of anger may be very intense, and the feelings may come and go. You also may daydream about revenge, which is normal and can be helpful in releasing rage and frustration. Feelings of anger are a natural part of the recovery process. These feelings are not right or wrong; they are simply feelings. It is important to recognize the anger as real but to not use it as an excuse to abuse or hurt others. There are safe and healthy ways to express anger. Many people find that writing down their feelings, exercising, doing hard physical work, beating a pillow, or crying or screaming in privacy helps them release some of the anger. Ignoring feelings of anger and resentment may cause physical problems such as headaches, upset stomachs, and high blood pressure. Anger that goes on a long time may cover up other more painful feelings such as guilt, sadness, and depression.

Depression and Loneliness–Depression and loneliness are often a large part of trauma for victims. It may seem that these feelings will last forever. Trials are sometimes delayed for months and even years in our criminal justice system. Once the trial day comes, the trial and any media coverage means having to relive the events surrounding the traumatic disaster. Feelings of depression and loneliness are even stronger when a victim feels that no one understands. This is the reason a support group for victims is so important; support group members will truly understand such feelings. Victims of traumatic disaster may feel that it is too painful to keep living and think of suicide. If these thoughts continue, you must find help. Danger signals to watch for include (1) thinking about suicide often, (2) being alone too much, (3) not being able to talk to other people about what you are feeling, (4) sudden changes in weight, (5) continued trouble sleeping, and (6) using too much alcohol or other drugs (including prescription drugs).

Isolation–You may feel that you are different from everyone else and that others have abandoned you. Terrorism is an abnormal and unthinkable act, and people are horrified by it. Injury by terrorism carries with it a stigma for the victim that can leave him or her feeling abandoned and ashamed. Other people may care but still find it hard or uncomfortable to be around you. You are a reminder that terrorism can happen to anyone. They cannot understand why you feel and act the way you do because they have not gone through it. This may be one of the hardest parts of getting back "to the real world". Joining others who did NOT go through what you experienced and cannot, and never will, understand what has happened to you. Victims need to be aware of this, as this is also a normal response from "non-victims". It is not right or wrong; it just is the way humans react to disasters.

Physical Symptoms of Distress–It is common to have headaches, fatigue, nausea, sleeplessness, loss of sexual feelings, and weight gain or loss after a traumatic event. Also, you may feel uncoordinated, experience lower backaches and chills/sweats, twitch/shake, and grind your teeth.

Panic–Feelings of panic are common and can be hard to cope with. You may feel like you are going crazy. Often, this feeling happens because traumatic disasters like terrorism seem unreal and incomprehensible. Your feelings of grief may be so strong and overwhelming that they frighten you. It can help a great deal to talk to other victims who have had similar feelings and truly understand what these feelings are all about.

Inability to Resume Normal Activity–You may find that you are unable to function the way you did before the act of terrorism and to return to even the simplest activities. It may be hard to think and plan, life may seem flat and empty, and the things that used to be enjoyable may now seem meaningless. You may not be able to laugh, and when you finally do, you may feel guilty. Tears come often and without warning. Mood swings, irritability, dreams, and flashbacks about crime are common. These feelings may come several months after the disaster. Your friends and coworkers may not understand the grief that comes with this type of crime and the length of time you will need to recove. They may simply think it is time for you to put the disaster behind you and get on with normal life. Trust your own feelings and travel the hard road to recovery at your own pace.

For the leader of a survival group, this inability to function is a problem for the whole group. It is yet another reason to have most of your survival equipment and supplies already located and in place. The people you may have to count on may not be able to function. The 6-P's (Proper Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance) will be severely tested if only a part of your planned work force can function. Knowing this, your survival plans must include the possibility of this happening.

Delayed Reaction–Some individuals will experience no immediate reaction. They may be energized by a stressful situation and not react until weeks or months later. This type of delayed reaction is not unusual and, if you begin to have some of the feelings previously discussed, you should consider talking to a professional counselor. Delayed stress reactions are now better known as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrom, that came to light during the post-Vietnam era. RT has personally had 3 incidents of "flashbacks" from Vietnam, that were triggered by odors. They only lasted a few seconds, but the feelings were very intense. It helped to talk to other Vietnam Vets who have experienced the same thing. In private, most Vets will admit to having similar experiences.

Coping with Stress:

  • Remember to breathe. Sometimes when people are afraid or are very upset they stop breathing. When you are scared or upset, close your eyes and take deep, slow breaths until you calm down. Taking a walk or talking to a close friend can also help.
  • Whenever possible, delay making any major decisions. You may think a big change will make you feel better, but it will not necessarily ease the pain. Give yourself time to get through the most hectic times and to adjust before making decisions that will affect the rest of your life.
  • Simplify your life for a while. Make a list of the things you are responsible for, such as taking care of the kids, buying groceries, teaching Sunday school, or going to work. Then, look at your list and see what things are absolutely necessary. Is there anything you can put aside for a while? Are there things you can let go completely?
  • Take care of your mind and body. Eat healthy food. Exercise regularly, even if it is only a long walk every day. Exercise will help lift depression and help you sleep better, too. Massages can also help release tension and comfort you.
  • Avoid using alcohol or other drugs. These substances may temporarily block the pain, but they will keep you from healing. You have to experience your feelings and look clearly at your life to recover from tragedy.
  • Talk to a friend, family member, or other survivors about what happened. It is common to want to share your experience over and over again - and it can be helpful for you to do so.
  • Begin to restore order in your world by reestablishing old routines at work, home, or school as much as possible. Stay busy with work that occupies your mind, but do not throw yourself into frantic activity.


There is NO way to train for the emotional stress of "the real thing". All your planning, drills, and discussions are useless when the real event happens. Every military commander will tell you that no battle plan holds up after the first shot is fired. After that, you "wing it". This is also true for the survivalist. Everyone in the disaster area will be over-stressed. Most will be in some stage of emotional shock, just as you will be. Predicting emotional reactions of people under normal circumstances is "iffy" at best. During a crisis, predicting behavior is almost impossible. Anger and rage can quickly turn to violence. Energetic and strong individuals will suddenly become useless from grief and depression. Normally calm and rational people will fly off the handle for no apparent reason. None of these behaviors will show up during a peace-time training exercise.

Your 6-P survival plan must include the probability of ALL these emotional reactions from the civilian population and the members of your own survival group. The bottom line is that if you are not prepared AHEAD OF TIME, the chances of getting anything productive done right away are very low. Recovery from disasters does not happen overnight, particularly when there is any loss of life. The debilitating effects of grief and shock will compound the dangers from most disaster scenarios you can think of. This is why KISS - "Keep it Simple, Stupid" - is so important. A person in shock cannot possibly follow a complicated plan, and may even mess up a simple plan. You must know that this is not only possible - it is PROBABLE.