What Makes Disasters Stressful?

Disasters are stressful events over which we have little or no control. The sudden disruption to everyday life, fear, uncertainty, and a loss of sense of safety are factors common to all disasters, which make them very stressful.

  • Uncertainty: Not having a complete understanding of the threat can leave us frightened and uncertain of what to do to protect ourselves and our loved ones. We may experience an even higher level of uncertainty during chemical, biological, nuclear and radiological events, especially if they involve agents that we cannot see, smell or taste.
  • Loss of a Sense of Safety: Witnessing or experiencing injury, being exposed to death and destruction, or becoming separated from loved ones can make us feel unsafe.
  • Disruption of a "Normal" Life: The temporary disruption to family and community life (work, school, social gatherings) during or after disasters can be very distressing. Mandatory evacuations that can occur with little or no warning can also be upsetting.
  • Fear: All disasters are frightening. We may fear for our own or our loved ones' well-being as well as for the safety of our property and belongings. During a chemical, biological, nuclear or radiological event, we may fear that we could catch or spread a disease, that effective treatment is not available or that we may be contaminated with a potentially life-threatening substance.
  • Type: Events that are designed to hurt, kill and terrorize are extremely stressful. Terrorist events are intentional acts of violence designed to disrupt life, create chaos and fear, and undermine our sense of safety.

What happens when we experience stressful and traumatic events?

  • Experiencing stressful and traumatic events can affect how we feel, think and act. Most people exposed to these events will show some signs of distress.
  • Everyone experiences stress in their own way and at different times, depending on their personality, age, gender and circumstances. There is no right or wrong way to react.
  • Most reactions are short-lived, normal reactions to an abnormal situation and most people recover with time and support.
  • Disasters can also cause people to re-experience feelings and memories of previous disasters, such as the events of 9/11.

More Coping Resources