Emotional Distress During and After a Disaster

 Warning Signs and Risk Factors for Emotional Distress

Learn about the common warning signs and risk factors for emotional distress that children, adults, and first responders often experience.

It is common to feel stress symptoms before or after a crisis. Natural and human-caused disasters can have a devastating impact on people’s lives because they sometimes cause physical injury, damage to property, or the loss of a home or place of employment. Anyone who sees or experiences this can be affected in some way. Most stress symptoms are temporary and will resolve on their own in a fairly short amount of time. However, for some people, particularly children and teens, these symptoms may last for weeks or even months and may influence their relationships with families and friends.

Common warning signs of emotional distress include:

  • Eating or sleeping too much or too little
  • Pulling away from people and things
  • Having low or no energy
  • Having unexplained aches and pains, such as constant stomachaches or headaches
  • Feeling helpless or hopeless
  • Excessive smoking, drinking, or using drugs, including prescription medications
  • Worrying a lot of the time; feeling guilty but not sure why
  • Thinking of hurting or killing yourself or someone else
  • Having difficulty readjusting to home or work life

For those who have lived through a natural or human-caused disaster, the anniversary of the event may renew feelings of fear, anxiety, and sadness. Certain sounds, such as sirens, can also trigger emotional distress. These and other environmental sensations can take people right back to the disaster, or cause them to fear that it’s about to happen again. These “trigger events” can happen at any time.

Warning Signs and Risk Factors for Children and Teens

Children are often the most vulnerable of those impacted during and after a disaster. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, a growing body of research has established that children as young as infancy may be affected by events that threaten their safety or the safety of their parents or caregivers. Disasters are unfamiliar events that are not easily understood by children, who can find them emotionally confusing and frightening. During the time of turmoil, they may be left with a person unfamiliar to them and provided with limited information.

Some warning signs of distress in children ages 6 to 11 include:

  • Withdrawing from playgroups and friends
  • Competing more for the attention of parents and teachers
  • Being unwilling to leave home
  • Being less interested in schoolwork
  • Becoming aggressive
  • Having added conflict with peers or parents
  • Having difficulty concentrating

For teens, the impact of disasters varies depending on how much of a disruption the disaster causes their family or community. Teens ages 12 to 18 are likely to have physical complaints when under stress or be less interested in schoolwork, chores, or other responsibilities.  Although some teens may compete vigorously for attention from parents and teachers after a disaster, they also may:

Children and teens most at risk for emotional distress include those who:

  • Survived a previous disaster
  • Experienced temporary living arrangements, loss of personal property, and parental unemployment in a disaster
  • Lost a loved one or friend involved in a disaster

Most young people simply need additional time to experience their world as a secure place again and receive some emotional support to recover from their distress. The reactions of children and teens to a disaster are strongly influenced by how parents, relatives, teachers, and caregivers respond to the event. They often turn to these individuals for comfort and help.

Teachers and other mentors play an especially important role after a disaster or other crisis by reinforcing normal routines to the extent possible, especially if new routines have to be established.  Access SAMHSA publications on helping youth cope with disaster-related emotional distress:

 Where Can I Get Help?

If you or someone you know shows any of these symptoms for two weeks or more, whether you know they are in relation to a hurricane or tropical storm or if it is unclear how they started …Talk with us. You are not alone! Call the Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746for support and counseling. The Disaster Distress Helpline is a national hotline that provides 24/7, year-round crisis counseling for people who are experiencing emotional distress related to any natural or human-caused disaster.

This toll-free, multilingual, and confidential crisis support service is available to all residents in the United States and its territories. Spanish-speakers should text Hablanos to 66746. Calls and texts are answered by trained, caring counselors from crisis call centers located throughout the United States.

Additional Resources About Coping