People afflicted by disaster, whether flood, tornado or some other challenge, grapple with emotions triggered by loss. Understanding the stages and dealing with the emotions make big differences in how well we cope, said Wally Goddard, professor of family life for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture.

Those emotions can generally be understood by considering the stage of a disaster, he said.

  • Anticipation

Uncertainty, fear and anxiety typically accompany tornado, hurricane and flood warnings or other predictions of impending disasters.

In the anticipation phase, Goddard said, people should attempt to stay informed and take appropriate precautions, while monitoring and regulating their emotions.

“One of the challenges of a slow-developing disaster is that anxiety can disable us. When a crisis happens suddenly and quickly, we tend to respond instinctively and quickly. In contrast, one that grows and builds and leaves us wondering how bad things are going to get can sometimes paralyze us.

“Worrying can disable any helpful reaction. We’re suffering not only from what damage is done but also from anxiety about what damage might happen.”

  • Survival

This is the acute phase of a disaster with a focus on saving life and limb.

In the survival – or crisis – stage, the focus turns to doing whatever is necessary to address immediate needs and stay safe. This may involve moving family members away from a flood or securing ourselves during a storm.

“Dealing with the crisis is a little bit like triage. Trained professionals respond to injury by quickly assessing what is most important to sustain life,” Goddard said. “So in the case of flooding, if you have a reasonably good estimate of how soon the flood will come you make sure you have an exit strategy, you gather family members, and maybe you take some of those things that are most cherished – maybe family pets, scrapbooks or whatever is considered most valuable.”

To manage this stage of a crisis, clear thinking and sensible action are vital.

  • Waiting

In disasters there is often a time, especially in the case of flooding, when it’s not known when a disaster will peak and how much damage it will cause. People may be kept from their homes for days or weeks with no way of assessing the damage.

In the waiting stage, people may feel compelled to seek out conversation.

“One of the worst things for humans to do is to sit and fret,” Goddard said.

The act of helping others often brings a sense of reward and well-being, and these feelings can help relieve stress for some people, even if whatever they’re doing doesn’t improve their own situations.

“It could be sandbagging or volunteering in the neighborhood even though that doesn’t have a direct impact on the current crisis.

“The waiting time is an especially good time for flood victims to find something they enjoy doing and that might be something as simple as taking walks, it could be reading a book, it could be knitting – something that allows them to keep their minds and hands busy.”

In the waiting stage, people may feel compelled to seek out conversation.

“Sometimes it’s helpful to talk to people and feel understood and supported and cared about, but it’s important not to obsess about it, not to let fretting about possibilities overwhelm us.”

  • Recovery

The phase after a disaster can be especially difficult as disaster victims assess their losses and experience the exhaustion and discouragement of navigating food, money and insurance issues.

In the recovery stage, people should begin to identify needs and tap into the resources they have – things like friendship networks, support services and faith – to meet those needs. Then they can come up with a specific plan to get their lives back on track.

“In the later stages of recovery as we start to stabilize emotionally we may even do some benefit-finding,” said Goddard. “As recovery progresses, people may be able to say, ‘Well, we’ve got a new roof and we’re closer as a neighborhood.’ Or they may say, ‘At least we’re alive’.”

Goddard cautions against hyper-focusing -- getting so caught up in crisis-related issues that you drop regular activities and hobbies. We need to make space in our lives for activities that restore us.

“Taking walks, being with friends, eating healthy meals or maybe even pursuing hobbies such as woodworking, reading, singing – anything that helps us recharge our batteries so that we’re better able to cope with the challenges we’re dealing with.”

Disaster victims should check with their employee assistance program managers and health plan contact points to learn about benefits that can help them through this difficult time.

For more information about food safety, contact your county Extension office or visit www.uaex.edu.