Coping with Disasters & Protecting Your Mental Health


The Pennsylvania Department of Health recognizes the importance of protecting both the physical and mental health of the Commonwealth’s citizens in a disaster. The Department is working with state, local and federal partners to ensure the public has the information and services they need to understand and cope with disasters.


Plan Ahead to Reduce Stress

Preparing for a disaster ahead of time is an easy way for anyone to reduce the natural stress that will occur when an emergency occurs. Knowing that you are prepared will help you and your loved ones stay calm. Developing a family disaster plan and a disaster supplies kit are good ways to start.


Work with your local Neighborhood Town Watch, places of worship, community centers, and other groups to develop a community disaster response plan. Don’t forget to plan for members of your neighborhood with special needs, including older adults, persons requiring assistance with communications, and people who are homebound or have mobility problems. Click here to learn more about planning for people with disabilities and other special needs.


People feel and express their emotions to a crisis differently. Before a disaster occurs, consider how you can best cope with a highly stressful situation. This preparation can also help you cope with stress in your daily life. It is important to:

  • Understand normal reactions to stress.
  • Identify healthy ways to deal with stress.
  • Identify if you or your family members need some assistance in dealing with stress.
  • Prepare for future disasters and emergencies to help decrease the stress of feeling unprepared.


Emotional and Physical Reactions to Disaster and Trauma

Disasters can have severe and long-term physical and mental health consequences for victims, responders and observers. Most people who have suffered loss and a disruption of their safety will have normal emotional reactions. For many people, these reactions are short lived, but they can last longer for others. Counseling and professional mental health services may be helpful for anyone who has been through a disaster, no matter how quickly or well they appear to be recovering.


No one who sees a disaster is untouched by it. Stress and grief are normal responses. Some typical reactions to a disaster include:

  • Nervousness, anxiety, feeling of helplessness, fear, sadness or anger
  • Feeling hopeless about the future
  • Feeling detached or unconcerned about others
  • Feeling numb and unable to experience love or joy
  • Irritability
  • Outbursts of anger
  • Becoming easily upset or agitated
  • Nightmares, upsetting memories and problems sleeping
  • Avoidance of people, places and things related to the disaster
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Feeling of unreality and confusion
  • Crying
  • Depression
  • Poor performance in school or at work
  • Alcohol and other drug use
  • Upset stomach or change in eating habits
  • Pounding heart, rapid breathing, sweating or headaches
  • Becoming easily startled
  • Worsening of chronic medical conditions
  • Exhaustion


Severe reactions, behaviors and symptoms may signal a need to consult a mental health professional. These include disorientation, hearing voices, unusual speech patterns, inability to care for self, suicidal or violent plans, dangerous use of drugs and alcohol, and domestic abuse. It is also a good idea to seek professional help if even normal disaster reactions seem to be lasting too long or are getting progressively worse.  If you or someone you know is a danger to self or others, call the police or 911.


Coping and Recovery

There are a number of ways you can help yourself and your loved ones recover emotionally from a disaster.

·        Remember to H-A-L-T.  Don’t get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired.

·        If you have pre-existing medical conditions or develop physical symptoms, see your doctor, keep your appointments and take medication as prescribed.

·        Eat healthy foods, including fruits and vegetables.  Drink plenty of water.  Stay away from too much sugar and salt.

·        Stay active.  Regular exercise and activities can help you relieve stress and cope in a healthy way.  Exercise does not need to be strenuous to be beneficial.

·        Refrain from using alcohol or drugs to numb feelings.  People with a history of substance abuse may need to increase involvement in support groups or counseling.

·        Share your thoughts and feelings with those you trust.  

·        Learn more about effective strategies for coping with traumatic events.

·        Help others on their road to recovery.


More Resources