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Adjusting to Life After Disaster Relief Work


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 service member. However, disaster relief work can also cause stress, which may not end when you complete your assignment. You can reduce the stress by taking care of yourself after your return and seeking help if you have trouble readjusting.

What to expect

Disasters are difficult to understand. When they occur, people wonder: Why did this happen? This question can be especially unsettling for disaster relief workers who have seen the effects and been directly involved with the catastrophe firsthand. After returning home, it may help to keep in mind these tips from the National Mental Health Information Center on understanding the aftermath 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 saw.
  • It is natural to feel anxious about your and your family's safety.
  • 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.
  • It is healthy to reach out for and accept help if you need it.

As you think about the experiences you had, you may realize you have additional concerns as well. 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. And you may have had to cope with shortages of basic supplies or resources that you usually take for granted. All of this may have had a cumulative effect on you that can continue after you return home.

The National Mental Health Information Center recommends seeking professional help if you have any of the following ongoing symptoms after finishing your relief work:

  • physical aches and pains
  • colds or flu-like symptoms
  • changes in your vision or hearing
  • insomnia or sleeping too little or too much
  • increased use of alcohol or drugs
  • limited attention span or decreased concentration
  • 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, or depression
  • overwhelming guilt or self-doubt

Some of the above symptoms may be signs of ongoing stress. They may also be signs of an illness or serious physical condition. Call your Primary Care Manager (PCM) or a doctor if you develop unexplained symptoms after returning from a place where you faced a risk of illness.

Taking care of yourself

After being away and taking care of others, you will probably now need to spend some time focusing on and taking care of yourself.

  • Pay attention to your health. Make an 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.
  • Maintain normal routines. You may find 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 act accordingly.
  • Spend time with supportive family and friends. Spend time with people who will understand if you don't want to talk about your experiences right away. On the other hand, 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. Actually scheduling a specific time or day to relax can help you keep the commitment you made to yourself.
  • Avoid using alcohol or drugs to ease stress. Alcohol can act as a depressant and make you feel worse instead of better. It can also disrupt your sleep. You may experience other problems with sleeping or working if you overuse sugar, coffee, tea, caffeinated sodas, or nicotine. These can have an over-stimulating effect.
  • 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.
  • 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 with each other will help in making the transition smoother for everyone.

Talking about your experience

Returning home will be easier if you can talk to people you trust about your feelings and experiences. It's important to be able to share not just difficult emotions - such as grief, disbelief, or frustration - but also the satisfaction you felt from 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 news report related to your disaster work.
  • Stay in touch with the people you worked with on disaster relief. They understand your experiences better than anyone. Stay in touch with them through calls or emails. They may be especially helpful if your loved ones don't seem to understand what you went through. Staying in touch will also allow you to help them if they're under stress.
  • Be aware that members of the media may try to contact you. Reporters are often very interested in the stories of people who have returned from disaster relief work. Make sure you know your service branch's policies about talking to the media and what, if any, clearances you need for this.

Most people adjust to life after disaster relief work, though the time required can vary greatly from person to person. If you find that your symptoms of stress continue after others have moved on in their adjustment period, and these symptoms are affecting your work or relationships, you may have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The National Center for PTSD will help you identify the symptoms and learn more about PTSD.

Talking with a professional helps people recover from trauma and feel better more quickly. Military OneSource, your installation Family Support Center, your military chaplain or civilian clergy, and your medical treatment facility are all resources for getting help.


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