Natural disasters can be scary, confusing and cause things to change. These changes can be physical (body stuff), social (with friends and family) and emotional (feelings stuff). Some reactions are really common and get better over time, but sometimes you may need some extra help to get things back on track.
When was the disaster?
What is a traumatic event?
If you or your friends have gone through a natural disaster, you may be hearing people talking about the event as a “traumatic event”. Traumatic events can cause physical, emotional and psychological distress or harm. The word trauma comes from a Greek word meaning “wound”.
Not everyone who experienced the natural disaster will think the event was traumatic. It depends on how each person understood what happened and how scared/threatened they were at the time of the event.
If your experience of the natural disaster was traumatic, the effects can be upsetting and can muck things up and get in the way of daily life.
Is what I am feeling normal?
In the first few weeks after a natural disaster, most people will experience some emotional reactions. How you are feeling might depend on where you were when the disaster happened, what you saw, and how it’s changed things for you. You may still be cleaning up, need to rebuild a new home, or have to go to a new school. You might not even live in the area that was affected, though you can still feel these things. Your mum and dad could be pretty worried about things (and you) too, or you might be worrying about them or your mates.
Common reactions after a natural disaster
In the first few weeks after the natural disaster, it’s really normal to feel:
- worried that the natural disaster might happen again
- sad for the people or things you have lost
- angry or confused because it’s so unfair, but there’s no one to blame
- in denial: you may not want to think about what happened. It’s ok to distract yourself but take some time to think about what has happened and how you are going.
- guilty because of something you did or didn’t do at the time, or you might just feel bad about yourself
- shocked: you may feel like things are happening slowly, and this feeling may come and go over a few weeks
Other emotions you might experience (which are normal in the first few weeks too):
- you might start to spend less time with friends and family
- you might feel a bit cranky as you try to work out what’s going on for you
- some young people use alcohol or drugs (but this won’t be helpful)
- it might be hard to get thoughts of the disaster out of your head
- you might have trouble sleeping (hard to get to sleep, or stay asleep)
- your appetite might change (eating more, or less than normal)
Even though these reactions are pretty common, and normal in the first few weeks after a disaster, everyone will react differently. Really strong emotions and reactions might take some weeks to settle for most people, and for some people it might take weeks, or months to get better. It’s always good to talk to mum and dad, or your teacher, or a professional (GP, school counsellor) about what’s going on for you.
There are many ways people respond to a very stressful event like a natural disaster
- find it to be a stressful time but cope well overall
- experience some emotional reactions (see common reactions) but feel better after 1-4 weeks
- experience several emotional reactions (see common reactions) but improve over 1-2 months
- experience strong emotional reactions (see common reactions) that are causing problems, and difficult to manage after several months (see when should I get help)
What you can do if you are struggling
- remember it's how we deal with the stuff that happens to us that is important
- you can talk to the people you trust about how you’re feeling
- you can remind yourself of other stressful situations you have coped with in the past
- you can accept help - from your friends, family, or an outside professional
You can talk to your parent or a teacher who can assist you to get help from:
- your GP (who can refer you to counsellors in your area)
- a Psychologist, Social Worker
- your School Counsellor / Guidance Officer
- Headspace: Locations, eheadspace
- Child and Youth Mental Health Services (CYMHS or CAMHS in your local area)
- Kidshelpline: website, web counselling or call 1800 55 1800
When should I get help?
While it is normal for people who have experienced a traumatic event to go through a range of emotional reactions, for some people the distress persists and they may be at risk of developing a mental health problem, such as:
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Other Anxiety Disorders
- Problems with Alcohol and/or Drugs
People who have experienced deeply upsetting things such as the death of a family member, a friend and/or neighbours, may take a long time to adjust to these changes and regain a sense of normality. For more information on these conditions, see www.youthbeyondblue.com or call the beyondblue info line 1300 22 4636. Also services like Adolescent Drug and Alcohol Withdrawal Service could provide the support to help with the recovery process.
There are some warning signs to look for in yourself and your mates that may indicate what you are experiencing may be beyond a normal reaction.
If you or someone you know experiences any of the following symptoms at any time, seek professional help:
- high distress levels that get in the way of being able to do the things you need to do (go to school, work, spend time with your friends)
- feeling overwhelmed by worry for no obvious reason
- panic symptoms: increased heart rate, breathlessness, shakiness, dizziness and a sudden urge to go to the toilet
- avoiding things that bring back memories of what happened - so much so it gets in the way of having to do your day to day tasks
- excessive guilt about things that you could or couldn’t do
- loss of hope or interest in the future
- thoughts of ending one’s life or self-harming
As a general rule, it is a good idea to seek help if you think you are not coping. You should speak to a Health Professional if:
- your problems seem too severe
- the emotional reactions are lasting too long
- you’re finding it difficult to engage in day to day activities or get along with family and friends
Getting help early can lessen the impact of mental heath problems on your life and improve the chances of recovering fully.
Where can I get help?
You can talk with your parent or teacher who will assist you to get help from:
Looking after yourself
Life can be chaotic and confusing after a trauma. There are things you can do to look after yourself and help you cope:
- spend time with family and friends
- try to get back to a routine
- try to be healthy (eat well and exercise)
- take time out to do the things you enjoy
- limit the amount of media coverage you listen to, watch or read
- write down your worries
- express your feelings
- accept help when it’s offered
- don’t expect to have all the answers
- realise you are not alone
What to expect 12 months after the natural disaster
The anniversary of a natural disaster can be upsetting. Some things that you can expect during this time are:
- an increase in the presence of media (TV, newspaper and radio) in your community
- there may be formal events to mark the anniversary of the event that you may or may not like to attend
- other informal events may be organised by those affected in your community
It’s important to have a plan to reduce the impact of the anniversary:
- limit your exposure to the media
- plan the anniversary day ahead of time and include relaxing and enjoyable activities
- you and your family may like to leave the area for the day, or stay and take part in anniversary events. It’s important to talk to your parents about this and decide together what is best for you
- have people available to support you should you need it - your parents, teachers, friends and extended family
Preparing for the future
The Trauma and Grief Network recommend:
1. Being prepared practically:
It is important to have an emergency plan for you and your family, and to prepare your home to be weather ready. This is something you can look at with your parents. You can create your own family plan through RACQ Get Ready Queensland.
2. Being prepared psychologically:
Talk to your friends and family- it helps to deal with the threat and will protect your mental health.
Know the risks
What is it that could happen and what can you do?
Identify your strengths
This can help identify what tools or resources you and your family already have that could help you get through.
Look after your life
Don’t let preparations for the threat of a natural disaster take over your life. Spend time with your friends, keep linked in with the activities you like to do as much as you can.