Working in a Disaster Area: Coping and Taking Care of Yourself

Doing disaster relief work presents a unique opportunity to help people most in need. Yet, it can also be physically and mentally draining. The people you see may be dealing with grief, physical and emotional trauma, and the sudden loss of friends, relatives, community members as well as all of their material possessions. Moods and emotions can be contagious, which may put your well-being at risk. The long hours and the unpredictable nature of your assignments can test the resilience of even the most seasoned disaster relief worker.

It is important to build into your workday opportunities to step back, to relax and to connect with family and friends.

Ways to take care of yourself and others

Taking care of yourself while you're doing disaster relief work means knowing what it is that makes you feel well-balanced and in control, and finding ways to do those things regularly. Looking out for your own emotional health - and helping coworkers look out for theirs - will help you withstand the job's unique demands and allow you to keep things in perspective. 

  • Stay focused on the tasks at hand. Especially in a large-scale disaster, it can be overwhelming to think about the big picture. Make a conscious effort to stay focused on daily tasks or weekly goals. This will help you feel less stressed and allow you to get more accomplished. 
  • Take breaks. Working with disaster victims can be physically tiring and mentally exhausting. Take breaks when on the job, even if you feel you do not need one, and especially if you find you are making mistakes or are unable to concentrate. 
  • Spend time away from the disaster site. In an area that has been truly devastated, you may not be able to find any place of refuge. But it is important to change your surroundings, even if that just means sitting in a car or under a tree for a short time with your eyes closed. 
  • Make your work area as comfortable as possible. Surroundings can make a difference in how you feel. Make sure your chair is as comfortable as possible and that you have a soothing photograph or other pictures to look at. 
  • Watch for signs of extreme stress or fatigue in others. If you have concerns about a coworker, talk with him or her about it. Sometimes you may even need to talk with a supervisor or a manager on-site to help your coworker get relief. 
  • Carry important phone numbers with you. Make sure to have the phone numbers of other relief workers deployed with you, your organization and other key people in case you need their help for any reason.
  • Spend time with coworkers. Talk about things other than your jobs such as home, hobbies, friends and family. Share coping skills. Ask others for help with what you need and support others in getting the help they need. Depending on the assignment, some relief members may be able to get together to watch a favorite television show, shoot hoops, challenge each other to video game tournaments or prepare a special meal if possible once or twice a week. 
  • Turn to coworkers for advice and support. If you are new to disaster relief work, don't be shy about asking someone with more experience for advice and information. Relief workers will remember when they were on their first assignment and will be able to give you helpful suggestions from their own firsthand experience. 
  • Balance time spent alone and time socializing. Aim for a healthy balance between being with others and taking time alone to regroup. 
  • Avoid using alcohol or drugs to relax or relieve stress. Alcohol can act like a depressant and may make you feel more lethargic and even depressed. Too much caffeine, sugar or cigarettes can have an over-stimulating effect. 
  • Be mindful of your own health. Get enough sleep and try to eat regular meals even if you do not feel hungry. Try to continue with as many of your usual routines as possible (for example, taking your regular medications, getting exercise or reading before bedtime). 
  • Find ways to relieve tension. Techniques like deep breathing or meditation are helpful. Exercise is important even if it is just for a few minutes a day. This can include stretching at your desk or in your chair during your assignment or even in your bed at night. Taking a walk with a coworker can also be a good stress reliever. 
  • Take care of yourself. Eat well-balanced meals and make a point of getting enough sleep. Keep a bottle of water with you, as it is easy to become dehydrated when you are under stress.
  • Bring comfort items from home, if it is appropriate. Some relief workers bring their pillow or blanket along on deployments. Others bring their laptop, load up their suitcase with photographs of friends and family or pack cooking spices so they can make home-cooked meals. Carry along those items that will help you feel more at home. 
  • Get out and explore the area. Ask around about places to visit if it is safe to do so. Pick up the local newspaper or regional magazine. Just getting out will give you a mental break from the demands of your job. 
  • Stay in touch with family and coworkers back home. Maintain regular contact with your friends and family back home if possible. You may feel too exhausted to pick up the phone or write an email at the end of a long work day but try to set aside time every week to connect. Some relief workers set aside Sundays for phone calls to friends and relatives so they can let their loved ones know they are thinking of them and that they are doing OK. 
  • Write down your feelings. Some people find that it helps to write down their feelings especially before they go to bed. You can then decide whether or not you want to share these thoughts and feelings with anyone else. Keeping an online blog is another good way to process your experiences while keeping your loved ones back home updated on your work. 
  • Make a daily gratitude list. When you are involved in a challenging and ever-changing situation, it can be hard to maintain an objective perspective amid so many ups and downs. Focusing on things that you are grateful for helps you become even more positive in general and when you are interacting with others. 
  • Try to focus on your job. Sometimes a relief worker can feel pulled by circumstances at home - a sick relative, a bad storm at home or a problem with a child at school. If something has happened at home, trust that your partner or family members will handle the situation. If you have strong feelings about how it was handled, you can talk about it after you return. 
  • Remember to focus on the powerful impact you are having. You are giving the gift of yourself and your experience and training. Treat yourself the way you are treating those you are helping - with compassion, empathy and understanding - and you and everyone you come in contact with will greatly benefit. 

When to seek professional help

If you experience signs of stress or compassion fatigue and the symptoms do not let up after a few weeks, it is important to seek professional help. Contact your health care provider, your on-site supervisor or Military OneSource. Remember that people who talk about their experiences and feelings find relief and get better more quickly. 


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