It was August 2020 and the United States had just surpassed its 5 millionth reported Covid-19 case. Meanwhile, hundreds of fires raged across my home state of California, incinerating small towns. Local news toggled between maps with red blotches indicating Covid hot spots or areas vulnerable to the fire’s path. I imagined embers leaping closer to home or toxic air swirling outside, a concoction of virus and smoke. While I was safe and sheltered with a well-stocked emergency bag nearby, I found myself ill-equipped and incapable of keeping my head calm as the foundations of my world—routines, interactions, surroundings—melted away.
Disasters break us because they feel uncontainable and uncontrollable. The earliest use of the word disaster dates back to the 16th century, and it was used to describe mass devastation—plagues, floods, wars—thought to be caused by the movements of stars. Today, we no longer blame celestial bodies for upending our lives, but this does not mean disasters are easier to manage.
Researchers expect that the psychological scars of the pandemic will run deep: A recent CDC survey showed that anxiety and depression increased by 30 percent since 2019. Other problems multiply as political and social foundations unravel, while social media amplifies the chaos. “People who substantially engage with the media are more distressed, even if they did not experience the harm firsthand,” Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor of psychological science at UC Irvine told me. She has studied disasters like the 2010 earthquake and tsunami in Bio Bio, Chile, and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. She also studies how media coverage can trigger stress, which then makes people consume more content to justify the stress. “It is a difficult cycle to break away from the more fearful and hypervigilant we become,” she says. We are trapped in a carousel of crises—an unstoppable hell ride—that we simultaneously suffer together and alone.
Most of us have practiced safety drills or learned how to assemble an emergency kit at some point in our lives, but likely received little guidance on how to deal with the emotional toll of a disaster. The pandemic fast-tracked our reckoning with mental health—in March 2020, the US Disaster Distress Helpline received almost 900 percent more calls for help compared to the same time in 2019—but research on the psychological impact of collective crises like the pandemic is still ongoing. “This work is best informed by an interdisciplinary approach, including behavioral science. But there’s a lack of representation of social and behavioral scientists in disaster advisory committees,” says Silver.
In fact, some of the earliest forms of emergency preparedness were not designed to consider people’s feelings at all. For example, the now-defunct US Office of Civil Defense, established during World War II, was exclusively devoted to surviving a special kind of disaster: nuclear war. “The goal was to live long enough to rebuild society and continue the government,” Alex Wellerstein, a professor at Stevens Institute of Technology and historian of science and nuclear weapons, says. He described Civil Defense experiments on long-term habitation, including teaching children in bunker environments for an extended period of time. (Supporters of subterranean schooling called it an “excellent atmosphere” with minimal distraction.) These studies triumphantly concluded that social order is possible despite a depressing, “tomblike” lifestyle. Many Civil Defense pamphlets from the era feature illustrations of a perfectly sanguine family living in a bunker—mother sewing clothes, father stretched out on a couch looking comfortable in his wartime abode. A portrait of a weeping parent would offer a more accurate depiction of shelter-in-place, but for Civil Defense officials, survival regardless of its conditions was the ultimate endgame.
Emergency preparedness experts today are finally aligning their work with mental health. This can be as simple as practicing empathy. “Sometimes it’s hard for scientists to be empathic, but you can’t be a good communicator if you don’t know your audience’s feelings and values,” says Jessica Wieder, director of Center for Radiation Information and Outreach at the US Environmental Protection Agency. Wieder was part of a team that pored over 12,000 pieces of news and social media posts on Covid testing and vaccines to better understand how the public internalized and reacted to emergency advisories. Their research hopes to offer insights into how people can cope with future disasters, especially invisible threats (a virus or radiation, for instance) or chronic incidents (longer droughts or hurricanes brought on by the worsening climate crisis).
The truth is, there is no balm, amulet, or singular advice that can protect us from the dark feelings that swell inside when disaster strikes. But it is possible to find ease, clarity, and courage to move forward. Here are some suggestions from experts to help weather the emotional whiplash:
There Is No “Right” Way to React or Recover
Disasters pull normalcy out from underneath us, and every person has a unique way of finding their footing amid the rubble. It is impossible to ascribe one emotional response for a given traumatic event since all reactions are manifestations of fear. Silver’s research found that some people developed debilitating distress even when they did not experience a disaster directly. As such, Wieder emphasizes the importance of validating emotions—friends’ and families’, as well as our own—even if we do not think they align with the situation. In general, people are terrible at evaluating risk, and talking to others can provoke arguments when perceptions of a situation don’t match. Recognizing that all emotions are normal improves communication and decisionmaking, and creates common ground. (Scientists found that a feeling of being understood activates neural responses associated with social reward.) Maria Cohut, a Medical News Today contributor who has written about cultivating resilience, also recommends framing disaster recovery as a transformation rather than “bouncing back,” which encourages people to embrace new possibilities instead of worrying about achieving a certain benchmark of healing.
Disasters Are a Process, so Expect Updates
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Emergencies do not have neat endings; information changes as situations evolve over time. Most people aren’t comfortable in a state of flux, and can doubt information that doesn’t provide closure. According to Madeline Beal, a senior risk communicator at the EPA, changing guidance indicates that experts are applying what they’ve learned as soon as possible. “Disasters are a process. People don’t like the idea of science changing, but it should be expected,” she says. Communication experts also found that people respond more positively to framing new information as “updates” since it suggests real-time context and is not contradictory to existing knowledge. Remembering that change is part of the experience can help you manage your anxieties.
Know Your Trusted Voice
In an emergency, we naturally turn to experts for guidance. Although central authorities—FEMA or the CDC in the United States, for example—have access to reliable resources for large-scale emergencies, they are not necessarily the most effective messengers. “The reality is, people get to decide who is credible to them,” explains Kristyn Karl, a professor of political psychology at Stevens Institute of Technology who specializes in risk communication. “For some, a neighbor is more trustworthy than the government. As disasters become politicized, the harder it will be to find a shared messenger that everyone will listen to.”
Disaster planners working with state and local authorities are working more closely now with messengers like community organizers and faith leaders who already have local trust. But most people are not consciously aware of who they consider trusted voices and why they trust them (it is often intuitive rather than a deliberate decision,) so it is helpful to list them out, get a sense of where they receive their information, and track inconsistencies or discrepancies in their messaging.
It is easy to assume disasters trigger antisocial, self-serving behavior that leads to social chaos and more destruction. Yet research has consistently shown that people exhibit heightened generosity and pro-social behaviors during and in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Helping during a disaster can elevate a sense of control and increase happiness. Besides joining the droves of spontaneous volunteers, consider how you can help address social inequity in emergency response. Black, Latino, and brown populations are less likely to receive disaster aid, and the rise of informal mutual-aid networks and local translation efforts offer alternative ways to show up.
Covid-19 revitalized interest in disaster preparedness. According to a 2021 FEMA household survey, 48 percent of Americans said that they made emergency plans, a slight increase from the previous year. Still, many people can find the task intimidating. “Disasters are in the same category as funerals and living wills—not fun to think about,” Karl admits. Wieder suggests starting with simpler logistics, like determining an emergency meeting place besides home; researching how to care for pets (many people risk their lives to find their pets or refuse to leave them behind); purchasing a hand-crank radio in case of blackouts; and identifying a joint point of contact to give you updates about other family and friends, if it is not possible to connect directly with one another. No matter the situation, planning gives you a sense of readiness. We have a guide to emergency preparedness gear here.
Today, I am more composed than I was a year ago but still bracing for the possible turns of events as our hell ride continues: a new Covid variant, or the next sweep of California fires already expected to break last year’s record. Fear and grief still sit with me, but I’ve also found gentleness and resilience nestled within these difficult feelings. I move forward, a little more in tune with my body and mind, a little more ready to take on what is to come. I hope all of us do.
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