UI Employee Assistance Program

Campus Address
121-50 USB
Mailing Address

121 University Services Building, Suite 50
Iowa City, IA 52242-1911
United States

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Natural disasters such as tornados, floods, or widespread illness are extraordinarily stressful—both to survivors and observers. Such events shatter one’s sense of security, often making one feel helpless and vulnerable.

Even if one is not directly impacted by the event, it is normal to feel anxious, scared, and uncertain about what the future may bring. Usually, these unsettling thoughts and feelings diminish as life starts to return to normal but one can assist the process by keeping the following in mind:

  • People react in different ways to natural disasters and traumatic events. There is no right or wrong way to think, feel, or respond. Be tolerant of one’s own reactions and feelings, as well as the reactions and feelings of others.
  • Ignoring one’s feelings will slow the healing process. It may seem better in the moment to avoid experiencing one’s emotions, but they exist whether one is paying attention to them or not.
  • Talking about what one is feeling will help one heal. Just as one may find it difficult to face one’s feelings head on, one may also find it difficult to express those feelings to others. Talking with a calm, caring person is best, but expressing one’s feelings through journaling, art, and other creative outlets can also help.

Common Reactions

It’s normal to feel a wide range of intense emotions and physical reactions. These emotional reactions often come and go in waves.

Normal Emotional Responses

  • Shock and disbelief: One may have a hard time accepting the reality of what happened
  • Fear: That the same thing will happen again, or that one will lose control or break down
  • Sadness: Particularly if people one knows have died
  • Helplessness: The sudden, unpredictable nature of natural disasters and accidents may leave one feeling vulnerable and helpless
  • Guilt: That you were okay when others weren’t
  • Anger: At those who one feels may be responsible
  • Shame: Especially over feelings or fears one can’t control
  • Relief: One may feel relieved that the worst is over, and even hopeful that one’s life will return to normal

Physical Stress Responses

  • 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

Tips for Recovery

Seek Comfort and Support

  • Reestablish a routine: As much as possible, resume normal routines and activities.
  • Connect with others:
    • Spend time with loved ones.
    • Connect with other survivors of the traumatic event or disaster.
    • Do “normal” things with other people, things that have nothing to do with the disaster.
    • Participate in memorials, events, and other public rituals.
    • Take advantage of existing support groups: your church, community organizations, and tight-knit groups of family and friends.

Minimize Media Exposure

Some may regain a sense of control by watching media coverage of the event or observing the recovery effort. Others find the reminders upsetting. Excessive exposure may be further traumatizing—in fact, re-traumatization is common.

  • 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
  • Information gathering is healthy, but try to avoid morbid preoccupation with distressing images and video clips. Read the newspaper or magazines rather than watching television.
  • Protect one’s children from seeing or hearing unnecessary reminders of the traumatic event.
  • After viewing disaster coverage, talk with one’s loved ones about the footage and what you’re feeling. 

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

Download this guide to recovery from stressful events in PDF format. For additional advice or services, contact the Employee Assistance Program.