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Resilience Resources for Emergency Response - Post-Deployment
Disaster relief work can be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help people in
need of your expertise and assistance. It is a uniquely rewarding way to use the
skills you have developed as a medical worker, soldier, aid worker, or trained
volunteer. However, disaster relief work also can cause stress, which may not
end when you complete your assignment. You can reduce this stress by taking care
of yourself after your return home and by seeking help if you have trouble
readjusting to your usual routine.
What to expect
Disasters are difficult to understand. When they occur, people often ask: Why
did this happen? This question can be especially unsettling for disaster relief
workers who have seen the effects and been involved with the catastrophe firsthand.
After returning home, it may help to keep in mind the following tips from
SAMHSA's National Mental Health Information Center on understanding the effects
of a disaster:
- No one who sees a disaster is untouched by it.
- It is normal to feel sadness, grief, and anger about what happened and what you
- It is also natural to feel anxious about your safety and the safety of your
- Acknowledging your feelings will help you move forward more quickly.
- Focusing on your contributions, strengths, and abilities can help you heal if
you are troubled by what you experienced.
- Everyone has different needs and different ways of coping. This is normal.
- It is healthy to reach out for and accept help if you need it.
Your physical and emotional health
Disaster work is challenging physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
You may have worked for long hours in areas that were overcrowded or had poor
sanitation or other health risks. You may have witnessed scenes of great pain
and loss of human life. You may have had to cope with shortages of basic
supplies or resources that most people take for granted. All of these
experiences may have had a cumulative effect on your physical and emotional
health that can continue after you return home.
SAMHSA's National Mental Health Information Center recommends seeking
professional help if you have any of the following ongoing symptoms upon your
- Physical aches and pains
- Cold or flu-like symptoms
- Changes in your vision or
- Insomnia, sleeping too little or
- Increased use of alcohol or drugs
- Limited attention span or
- Poor work performance
- Confusion or disorientation
- Reluctance to leave home or be alone
- Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness
- Mood swings or elevated anger
- Crying easily, prolonged sadness,
- Overwhelming guilt or self-doubt
Some of the above symptoms may be signs of ongoing stress. They also may be
signs of an illness or serious physical condition. For example, flu-like symptoms
can be a sign of meningitis, a potentially fatal disease that can spread quickly
in crowded areas such as refugee camps. Don’t take chances with your health.
Call a doctor if you develop unexplained physical symptoms after returning from
a place where you faced an increased risk of illness.
Taking care of yourself
After being away and taking care of others, you probably will need to spend some
time focusing on and taking care of yourself.
- Pay attention to your health.
Make the extra effort to get enough sleep and eat balanced meals. Keep up any
other habits that you normally practice to maintain good health, such as getting
regular exercise and taking vitamins or medications prescribed by your doctor.
- Maintain normal household routines.
You may find household projects or invitations from friends waiting for you
after you return. Some people need time to readjust before they jump back into
their usual routines and relationships. Others find it helpful to resume their activities and connect with family and
friends right away. Think about what you need to do for yourself, and do what is
best for you.
Spend time with supportive family and friends. Doing disaster relief work can be
emotionally overwhelming and isolating. Spend time with people who will
understand if you don’t want to talk about your experiences right away.
Alternatively, if you do need to talk about some events, choose to be with
someone you feel is able to be supportive, understanding, and patient.
Build "down time" into your schedule. After working long hours in a stressful
setting, you need time to unwind. Scheduling a specific time or day to relax can
help you keep the commitment you made to take care of yourself.
Avoid using alcohol or drugs to ease stress. Alcohol can act as a depressant and
make you feel worse instead of better. It also can disrupt your sleep. You may
experience problems with sleeping or working if you overuse sugar, coffee, tea,
caffeinated sodas, or nicotine. These products can have an overstimulating
Look for healthy ways to ease tension. You may want to learn a few meditation or
deep-breathing techniques. Set aside time to walk, exercise, write in a journal,
listen to soothing music, or engage in any activity that has helped you relieve
stress in the past.
Focus on the tasks and goals you have now. While you were doing disaster work,
you may have had to focus all of your energies on the task at hand, and it may
be hard to shift your focus after returning home. It is important to be able to
give your best efforts to work, people, and the things that need your attention
now. Doing this will help you better manage any stress that you feel. It also
will help you feel that you are making a contribution through your work and in
Expect the unexpected. You may have certain expectations of how things went
while you were away or how things should be now that you’ve returned. Your loved
ones may have different expectations. Keeping the lines of communication open
will help make the transition smoother for everyone.
- Realize that some experiences may now seem mundane, routine, or even boring.
Once you return home to your typical routines, job, and relationships, you may
feel let down or feel that what you are doing now is not as meaningful or
fulfilling. There is a necessary and typical period of adjustment before you can
fully make the transition back to finding the rewards in your everyday life.
Talking about your experience
Returning home will be easier if you can talk with people you trust about your
feelings and experiences. It is important to share not just difficult
emotions-such as grief, disbelief, or frustration-but also the joy you felt when
helping those in need.
- Share your feelings with the people closest to you. Some experiences will be
easiest to share with people who know you well. You may want to talk to them
before you try to describe your experiences to more distant friends or loved
ones. If certain things are hard to describe or to begin talking about, you
might start the conversation by bringing out photographs or talking about a
particular news report related to your disaster work.
Allow others to talk about their experiences at home while you
were away. Everyone you interact
with regularly may need a chance
to express their feelings and share
their experiences with you about
what it was like for them while
you were away. Listening is
important, even if you feel a little
disconnected to what your loved
ones are saying or do not know
how to respond to them.
- Stay in touch with disaster
relief coworkers. The people
you worked with on disaster
relief efforts understand your
experiences better than anybody
else. Stay in touch with them
through calls or e-mails. These
coworkers may be especially
helpful if your family and friends
don’t seem to understand what
you went through. Staying in
touch with coworkers will also
allow you to support them if they
are under stress.
- Be aware that members of the
media may try to contact you.
Reporters are often interested in
the stories of people who have
returned from disaster relief
work. Make sure you know your
organization's policies about
talking to the media and what, if
any, clearances you need.
Most people are able to adjust to
returning home after disaster relief
work, though the time required can
vary greatly from person to person.
If stress reactions persist, or interfere
with your personal or work life
following your relief assignment, it is
important to seek professional help.
The following ongoing signs and
symptoms may be an indication of
post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD):
- Flashbacks (e.g., recurring scenes,
pictures, and conversations)
- Nightmares and/or other sleep
- Difficulty concentrating or
- Feelings of anger, anxiety, sadness,
depression, or crying a lot
- Fear of being alone or only
wanting to be alone
- Frightening or recurring thoughts
- Feeling numb or as though you’re
on "automatic pilot"
A person experiencing post-traumatic
stress disorder may experience a few
or many of the above symptoms. If
responses and reactions like these
continue for months, or if they
interfere in your daily life to any
extent, it is important to seek
professional help immediately.
Talking with a trained professional
can help you recover from trauma and
feel better faster. Your employee
assistance program (EAP) or employee
resource program can help you get the
confidential, professional assistance
Even if you don’t have signs of PTSD,
it is important to get help if you are
having trouble with your work or
relationships, or if you are still feeling
low after your disaster relief coworkers
have moved on. You might begin by
talking to a professional you trust,
such as your doctor or a chaplain or
other clergy member. Again, your
EAP or employee resource program
can help you get professional assistance.
After returning, take some time to
think about the valuable contribution
you have made to many who needed
your help. The American Red Cross
encourages disaster workers to
remember that they have given a gift of themselves—their time and caring—
to those who have experienced a
catastrophe. Eventually, you may do
more disaster relief work, or you may
move on to completely different tasks.
Either way, if you take good care of
yourself and get help when you need
it, you will continue to keep making
valuable and much needed contributions
Written with the help of Marjorie Dyan Hirsch,
D.C.S.W., C.E.A.P., C.A.S.A.C., B.C.E.T.S.
Ms. Hirsch is an organizational crisis management
specialist, corporate consultant, executive coach,
and trainer. Ms. Hirsch provided debriefings
for the Federal Emergency Management Agency
(FEMA) during the Oklahoma City bombing
and for many major corporations after both
World Trade Center crises. She is CEO of The
Full Spectrum in New York City. Parts of this
article were adapted from After a Disaster:
Self-Care Tips for Dealing with Stress, a
publication of SAMHSA's National Mental
Health Information Center, available online at
National Mental Health Information Center [63 KB PDF, 3 pages].
Accessibility Assistance: Contact the OSHA Directorate of Technical Support and Emergency Management at (202) 693-2300 for assistance accessing PDF materials.