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Disaster Management: Understanding the Emotional Response to Disasters

We see a plethora of disasters all around our world every year. Most of us have this feeling of indestructibility, thinking that a major catastrophe will never affect us, so we don’t spend much time thinking about what our response would be if somehow that day came.

Unfortunately, for many people they don’t have that same luxury. From fires, tornadoes, wars, etc. there are victims and helpers that are being affected every day.

Understanding our Disaster Response

Going through a major catastrophe or natural disaster is something that is unthinkable for most, which is why it can be so difficult to prepare for. The lack of preparation leads to a lack of understanding when it comes to our emotional response during such a high stress situation.

For this reason, we’re going to take a look at the universal response cycle to disasters in the hopes that it will help those that are being affected understand how they’re responding, and it may help someone in the future when dealing with difficult situations.

Figure 1: Adapted from Biomedcentral

Fear response

For victims of natural disasters the first emotion that the majority of people are experiencing is fear. This fear encompasses a number of areas: fear that they won’t make it out, fear that they won’t be able to see family or friends again, and fear that they’ll lose their home or belongings.

Their body is also reacting in an anxious way. Typically they will feel their heart rate increasing, their breathing speeding up, and their muscles constricting or trembling.

This is the automatic reaction of our sympathetic nervous system. We start to focus on our survival even if, in some situations, there’s nothing else to do besides waiting for the disaster to be over.

During the course of the disaster, fear will most likely be blinding someone from thinking of anything else, their sole focus is survival.

Separation, Loss, & Grief Response

The second response in the cycle of disaster management doesn’t apply to everyone.

Sadly, this response is for those that have lost someone or something during a disaster. It’s the grieving process that occurs after the fear of being harmed has settled and the reality of the loss sets in.

To briefly go through the 5 steps of grieving they are: shock/denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and resolution.

Everyone’s timeline for working through the 5 stages of grief is different. Some people don’t proceed in a linear way while others follow the stages to a T. This grieving process doesn’t only apply to those that have lost a loved one, but it can apply to those that have lost belongings as well.

It’s not necessarily about the attachment to the items that have been lost, but it’s about the way their belongings were taken. Some people don’t feel very attached to their belongings, but if they were forced to evacuate their home or forced to give up something that once felt like a sure thing to them, the grief they experience is magnified due to the way the loss occurred.


The third (or second step for some) for the universal response cycle to disasters is adaptation.

This step applies to everyone: to those that lost something or someone in the disaster and to those that didn’t. It can even help response teams understand the victims emotions as they recover.

Adaptation is the process of adjusting to the new reality and learning how to live with the traumatizing experience.

Dr. Potts (founder and director of the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History) believed that we as human beings are the most adaptable beings on Earth. His main focus in this statement was applied to our ability to live in different climates, however, we are also the most adaptable when adjusting after a traumatic experience.

It may feel like you can’t live with the reality of the experience that occurred, you can’t imagine a future after going through what you did, but you’re more resilient than you think.

After a catastrophe you may experience some of the following:

  1. Mood changes: overwhelmed, moody, nervous, anxious

  2. Behavior and thought patterns changing: vivid memories, overeating/oversleeping

  3. Heightened response to environmental factors: loud noises, weather, etc.

  4. Strained relationships: a feeling that no one understand what you went through

  5. Physical symptoms from stress: tension headaches, muscle pain, stomach aches, chest pain

These responses during your adjustment period are normal, and are experienced by many people around the world every day. The important thing is to give yourself time to cope, allow yourself to work through the feelings rather than block them out, and find ways to help calm yourself while you adjust.

Remember, you’re learning to adjust after a disaster which means that you’re most likely not going to be the same person as you were before.

Searching for meaning

As you reflect back on the catastrophe that you’ve been through, you may try to find some sort of meaning as to why it happened to you.

This can be a way to help you come to terms with the event while finding a significance behind it.

Although we may never know why certain things happen, it’s important to keep in mind that you should never label it as something that you “deserved.” No one deserves to go through traumatic experiences. However, finding some way to learn and grow from the disaster may help you cope with the fact that it happened.

This doesn’t mean that you’re thankful it happened.

Since we aren’t able to change the past, we can focus on the power of our souls as they persevere through the suffering that takes place in this world. You made it through the disaster for a reason, and you may not understand why, but don’t allow the opportunity you’ve been given go to waste.

Concentration camp survivor and psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl once said, “Life remains potentially meaningful under any conditions, even those which are most miserable.”

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