After the Flood: Emotional Distress and How to Manage It

“A FEMA IA worker comforts a resident in Texas.jpg” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by Greg Henshall

Overwhelmed! I recently had the opportunity to be in Houston after the flood and that is the first word that comes to mind as I reflect on the experience. I can only imagine what those living through this process of recovery must feel. Stress, anxiety, and other depression-like symptoms are common reactions after a disaster. The Disaster Distress Helpline, 1-800-985-5990, is a national hotline dedicated to providing immediate crisis counseling for people who are experiencing emotional distress related to a natural or human-caused disaster. You can also text TalkWithUs to 66746 to connect with a trained crisis counselor. These services are available 24/7, 365 days a year. These counselors can provide:

  • Crisis counseling for people in emotional distress related to any natural or human-caused disaster
  • Information on how to recognize distress and its effects on individuals and families
  • Tips for healthy coping
  • Referrals to local crisis call centers for additional follow-up care and support.

When you call or text, crisis counselors will listen to what’s on your mind with patience and without judgment. There is no need to give any identifying information when you contact the Disaster Distress Helpline. The counselor may ask you for some basic information at the end of the call, but these questions are optional.

People can experience a wide range of emotions before and after a disaster or traumatic event. These people may include the flood survivors, first responders and recovery workers, as well as family, friends, and loved ones located outside the impacted area, but feeling worried or anxious about those in direct proximity to the flood. There is no right or wrong way for these individuals to feel; however, it’s important to find healthy ways to cope.

These are just some initial things to consider doing to help you  or your loved ones cope in a healthy way:

  • Limit your consumption of news. We live in a society where the news is available to us 24 hours a day via television, radio, and the Internet. The constant replay of news stories about a disaster or traumatic event can increase stress and anxiety and make some people relive the event over and over. Reduce the amount of news you watch and/or listen to, and engage in relaxing activities to help you heal and move on.
  • Get enough “good” sleep. Some people have difficulty falling asleep after a disaster, or wake up throughout the night. If you have trouble sleeping, only go to bed when you are ready to sleep, avoid using cell phones or laptops in bed, and avoid drinking caffeine or alcohol at least one hour before going to bed. If you wake up and can’t fall back to sleep, try writing what’s on your mind in a journal or on a sheet of paper.
  • Establish and maintain a routine. Try to eat meals at regular times and put yourself on a sleep schedule to ensure an adequate amount of rest. Include a positive or fun activity in your schedule that you can look forward to each day or week. Schedule exercise into your daily routine as well, if possible.
  • Avoid making major life decisions. Doing things like switching jobs or careers can already be stressful and are even harder to adjust to directly after a disaster.
  • Understand there will be changes. Disasters can destroy homes, schools, and places of business and worship and can disrupt the lives of people living in affected areas for a long time. Sometimes, people lose loved ones or experience injuries, both physical and mental, which may last a lifetime. Some people may also experience a temporary or permanent loss of employment. For children, attending a new or temporary school may result in being separated from peers, or after-school activities may be disrupted.

Don’t hesitate to ask for help if you need it.

Warning signs of stress are normal, short-term reactions to life’s unexpected challenges. However, it is important to recognize when you or others experience emotional distress that is persistent and becomes difficult to manage.

  • Find a local support group. In a group setting led by trained and experienced professionals, people who have shared a similar experience can exchange thoughts, feelings, and ideas on how to get through difficult times. Support groups provide a safe place for people to find comfort in knowing they are not alone.
  • Reach out to family and friends. Talking to someone you trust about your feelings without fear of judgment may offer some relief. Family and friends can be a great resource for support. Your family and friends may have also survived the disaster and understand the emotions you are experiencing. It’s also a good idea to speak with friends who were not involved, because they can be objective and provide additional support.
  • Speak with a financial adviser. The loss of a home or job or being unable to work after a disaster can be an overwhelming financial burden people feel they have to struggle with alone. Financial advisers don’t immediately come to mind as a resource after a disaster, but they should be among the first people you call when developing a strategy to rebuild your life. Seeking help from a financial adviser can ease the stress and point you in the direction of other helpful resources or programs tailored to your situation.

If you or your loved ones continue to have feelings of anxiety, fear, and anger for two weeks or more, with no improvement, it’s best to seek professional help. Call or text the Disaster Distress Helpline to locate services and speak with trained crisis counselors who are ready to assist you. Please call or text the hotline at: 1-800-985-5990, or text TalkWithUs to 66746. You can also consult the following resources for other helpful information:

Be Red Cross Ready: Taking Care of Your Emotional Health After a Disaster

Tips for Survivors of a Disaster or Other Traumatic Event: Managing Stress

Stress in Adults After a Disaster: Warning Signs and ManagementCoping Tips for Traumatic Events and Disasters

Psychological First Aid handouts, which include the following topics: Seeking social support; Giving social support; When terrible things happen what you may experience; Parent tips for helping infants, toddlers, preschoolers, school-age children, and adolescents after a disaster; Tips for adults; Tips for relaxation; Alcohol, medication, and drug use after a disaster.

Trinka and Sam: The Rainy Windy Day; also available in Spanish is a story that was developed to help young children and their families begin to talk about feelings and worries they may have after they have experienced a hurricane.


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2016). Coping tips for traumatic events and disasters. Retrieved September 10, 2017.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2017). Disaster distress helpline. Retrieved September 10, 2017.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2015). Floods. Retrieved September 10, 2017.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2016). Warning signs and risk factors for emotional distress. Retrieved September 10, 2017.

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