Natural disasters and distressing events are commonplace in Australia and around the world, and summer in Australia can be a time when natural disasters are more likely to occur. Exposure to these, whether directly or indirectly, can impact our mental health and wellbeing. Something that is helpful for managing these events is psychological preparation. In the case of natural disasters, once all necessary physical preparations are complete, the focus can shift to psychological preparation. Being psychologically prepared can help people to cope with the stress of an unfolding event as well as reduce the impact of the distress once a disaster has passed. 

Being psychologically prepared involves three steps:

  1. Anticipate that the situation will be stressful

    1. Understanding your usual responses to stress is important. It is likely that you will have helpful  and unhelpful ways of responding, so anticipating these can support managing stress

    2. Our response to stress and the associated feelings impact how we cope, so being prepared is important

  2. Identify your typical physical and emotional responses, and any frightening thoughts that might be adding to your fear

    1. The body has a physical response to high levels of stress and often displays signs of anxiety

    2. Common physical symptoms include racing heart, sweaty palms, dizziness and shortness of breath

    3. Typical thoughts include –

      • This is awful

      • I don’t know what to do

      • I can’t bear it

      • I‘m so scared

  3. Reminding yourself that strong body responses and negative thought patterns are a normal part of stress can be helpful

    1. Manage your feelings and thoughts with simple breathing and self-talk

    2. Breathing techniques such as deliberately slowing the pace of breath can support in calming the body’s fear response

    3. Self-talk statements are also useful, for example – 

      • Stay calm

      • It’s OK, I’m managing

      • I can handle this

It’s important that adults learn ways to manage their responses to disasters so they can support children with managing their responses. Children will often look to adults for cues of how to respond to events, therefore being aware of and managing your own response is important. Children will likely express their responses in different ways to adults, so it’s important to notice any changes in children’s behaviour that may indicate they are struggling. Behaviours that may indicate children are struggling include:

  • nightmares

  • irritability or anger

  • withdrawing

  • poor concentration

  • sleep issues

  • increased aggression or angry outbursts

  • questions about death and dying

There are a number of ways adults can support children with managing their response to disaster. Parents and carers can encourage their children to speak about their thoughts and feelings, providing children with a safe space to verbalise their concerns and fears. Providing children with age-appropriate information about an event is also important. This will help children gain understanding and clarity around events. Limiting children’s exposure to media coverage and adult conversations about the event is also important. And supporting children to foster hope and find a positive aspect in their response, for example donating money, volunteering or writing thank you cards to the services that are supporting in the emergency response, further support them to manage their experience. 

Read also:

Bushfire preparedness

Tip sheet: Psychological preparation for natural disasters

Tip sheet: Children and the media