How to Prepare for a Disaster, Emotionally and Mentally

Emergency preparedness experts today are finally aligning their work with mental health. This can be as simple as practicing empathy. “Sometimes it’s hard for scientists to be empathic, but you can’t be a good communicator if you don’t know your audience’s feelings and values,” says Jessica Wieder, director of Center for Radiation Information and Outreach at the US Environmental Protection Agency. Wieder was part of a team that pored over 12,000 pieces of news and social media posts on Covid testing and vaccines to better understand how the public internalized and reacted to emergency advisories. Their research hopes to offer insights into how people can cope with future disasters, especially invisible threats (a virus or radiation, for instance) or chronic incidents (longer droughts or hurricanes brought on by the worsening climate crisis).

The truth is, there is no balm, amulet, or singular advice that can protect us from the dark feelings that swell inside when disaster strikes. But it is possible to find ease, clarity, and courage to move forward. Here are some suggestions from experts to help weather the emotional whiplash:

There Is No “Right” Way to React or Recover

Disasters pull normalcy out from underneath us, and every person has a unique way of finding their footing amid the rubble. It is impossible to ascribe one emotional response for a given traumatic event since all reactions are manifestations of fear. Silver’s research found that some people developed debilitating distress even when they did not experience a disaster directly. As such, Wieder emphasizes the importance of validating emotions—friends’ and families’, as well as our own—even if we do not think they align with the situation. In general, people are terrible at evaluating risk, and talking to others can provoke arguments when perceptions of a situation don’t match. Recognizing that all emotions are normal improves communication and decisionmaking, and creates common ground. (Scientists found that a feeling of being understood activates neural responses associated with social reward.) Maria Cohut, a Medical News Today contributor who has written about cultivating resilience, also recommends framing disaster recovery as a transformation rather than “bouncing back,” which encourages people to embrace new possibilities instead of worrying about achieving a certain benchmark of healing.

Disasters Are a Process, so Expect Updates

Emergencies do not have neat endings; information changes as situations evolve over time. Most people aren’t comfortable in a state of flux, and can doubt information that doesn’t provide closure. According to Madeline Beal, a senior risk communicator at the EPA, changing guidance indicates that experts are applying what they’ve learned as soon as possible. “Disasters are a process. People don’t like the idea of science changing, but it should be expected,” she says. Communication experts also found that people respond more positively to framing new information as “updates” since it suggests real-time context and is not contradictory to existing knowledge. Remembering that change is part of the experience can help you manage your anxieties.

Know Your Trusted Voice

In an emergency, we naturally turn to experts for guidance. Although central authorities—FEMA or the CDC in the United States, for example—have access to reliable resources for large-scale emergencies, they are not necessarily the most effective messengers. “The reality is, people get to decide who is credible to them,” explains Kristyn Karl, a professor of political psychology at Stevens Institute of Technology who specializes in risk communication. “For some, a neighbor is more trustworthy than the government. As disasters become politicized, the harder it will be to find a shared messenger that everyone will listen to.”

Disaster planners working with state and local authorities are working more closely now with messengers like community organizers and faith leaders who already have local trust. But most people are not consciously aware of who they consider trusted voices and why they trust them (it is often intuitive rather than a deliberate decision,) so it is helpful to list them out, get a sense of where they receive their information, and track inconsistencies or discrepancies in their messaging.

Help Others

It is easy to assume disasters trigger antisocial, self-serving behavior that leads to social chaos and more destruction. Yet research has consistently shown that people exhibit heightened generosity and pro-social behaviors during and in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Helping during a disaster can elevate a sense of control and increase happiness. Besides joining the droves of spontaneous volunteers, consider how you can help address social inequity in emergency response. Black, Latino, and brown populations are less likely to receive disaster aid, and the rise of informal mutual-aid networks and local translation efforts offer alternative ways to show up.

Plan Ahead 

Covid-19 revitalized interest in disaster preparedness. According to a 2021 FEMA household survey, 48 percent of Americans said that they made emergency plans, a slight increase from the previous year. Still, many people can find the task intimidating. “Disasters are in the same category as funerals and living wills—not fun to think about,” Karl admits. Wieder suggests starting with simpler logistics, like determining an emergency meeting place besides home; researching how to care for pets (many people risk their lives to find their pets or refuse to leave them behind); purchasing a hand-crank radio in case of blackouts; and identifying a joint point of contact to give you updates about other family and friends, if it is not possible to connect directly with one another. No matter the situation, planning gives you a sense of readiness. We have a guide to emergency preparedness gear here.

Today, I am more composed than I was a year ago but still bracing for the possible turns of events as our hell ride continues: a new Covid variant, or the next sweep of California fires already expected to break last year’s record. Fear and grief still sit with me, but I’ve also found gentleness and resilience nestled within these difficult feelings. I move forward, a little more in tune with my body and mind, a little more ready to take on what is to come. I hope all of us do.

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