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Five ways to look after your mental wellbeing after a natural disaster

A fire fighter volunteer stands in the burned bush.
Are you taking time to look after yourself?

When you’ve been through a natural disaster, your mental wellbeing can take a hit. Whether you’ve experienced a fire, flood, cyclone, storm or earthquake, the toll on your mind can be just as significant as the property damage you can see outside.

It’s normal to feel intense emotions after a natural disaster. It’s also normal to be numb, like you have no feelings at all. This is your mind’s way of dealing with an extraordinary situation. Don’t judge – just let yourself feel how you feel.

As you start to recover and rebuild over days, weeks and months, the steps below can help you look after your mind and stay well.

Look after your physical wellbeing

Your mind and body are connected. We all know what it’s like to get ‘hangry’ when it’s been too long between meals, or fidgety if you haven’t been outside for a while. Your body still has the same needs, even when you’re trying to get over an extreme event.

Try to eat regularly. If you’re really busy, setting a timer to make sure you stop for breakfast, lunch and dinner might help. Get healthy meals in when you can, and drink plenty of water every day.

Find a way to get physically active. It might not be possible right now to do the activities you’re used to doing, like going to the gym, riding your bike or swimming at the pool, but there are other ways to move your body. You might be able to go for a walk. If you can’t be outside, try doing some stretches or yoga. You could even put on some music and have a dance, with a group or alone, to get your heart pumping and release a little stress.

Try to get plenty of sleep. If you can, go to bed around the same time each night and get up around the same time each morning. Don’t worry if you’re finding it hard to nod off at first – sleep is often disrupted after a big change or event. Your sleep will return to normal with time. The best thing you can do is give yourself a solid sleep routine.

Find a routine

Routine can relieve stress because it helps you feel in control and know what’s coming up. Start building routine back into your life with the steps above: eating well, exercise and sleep can all be part of your day-to-day routine.

Are there any rituals from your normal life you can start again? You might enjoy a cuppa early in the morning before anyone else is awake, or writing your thoughts in a notebook at the end of the day. Even things that aren’t ‘fun’, like always doing the washing up at the end of the day, can help you feel more in control and closer to getting back to normal.

Break tasks down into manageable parts

After a natural disaster, it can feel like the list of things you need to do is overwhelming and really stressful. Even if you want to get on with things as quickly as possible, you can’t do it all in a day.

Take big tasks, like ‘clean up the house’, and break them into smaller ones to tick off one-by-one: move the furniture outside, wipe down the walls, open all the windows. This will help you see the progress you’re making and make the next steps feel manageable. It can also help you identify what you can do and when you need to ask for some help.

A street with trees and signs blown down in a storm.

Switch off

It might feel like you’re always watching, hearing or talking about the natural disaster. Turning off the news on the TV or radio, and taking a break from social media, can help clear your head and give you space to think about nicer things.

Even though something bad has happened, you’re allowed take a break and do something you enjoy. Read a book, watch TV, or chat with your family or friends about something totally unrelated. Taking time for you is always allowed, and it can be really important for your mental health.

Talk to someone when you feel ready

Maybe you don’t want to talk straight away about everything that’s happened. Maybe all you want to do is talk about it! The most important thing is not to bottle up how you’re feeling.

There’s no right or wrong way to talk about what’s going on for you. When you feel ready, find someone to talk with about what’s happened to you, how you feel about it, and any hopes or worries you have. It might come up naturally in conversation, or you might need to bring it up yourself.

Seek support when you need it

When you’ve been through a natural disaster, you can be at a higher risk of developing a mental health condition like depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. Given all the upheaval, loss and trauma, this makes sense. If it’s been two months or more and you’re feeling stressed, overwhelmed, worried, upset, angry or just not like your normal self, it’s time to tell someone.

You might start by talking to someone close to you, like a family member, friend or colleague, or you could go to your GP. Even if you don’t think you have a mental health condition, speaking with your GP or a mental health professional can help you make sense of your thoughts, feelings and behaviour. You can use this list to find a mental health support service in Queensland.

If you’re not sure if what you’re thinking or feeling is normal, Beyond Blue has a list of signs that it’s time to seek support after a natural disaster on their website.

If you’ve noticed you’re drinking or using other drugs more than normal, or you’re using them to manage how you’re feeling, you can get anonymous support 24/7 from ADIS by visiting their website or calling 1800 177 833.

If you think you might harm yourself or others, or you’re thinking of ending your life, it’s time to seek help from a medical professional now. If you think it’s an emergency or someone’s life is in danger, call Triple Zero (000) for an ambulance, or head straight to the closest emergency department.

The below helplines can offer further support:

Lifeline: visit the website or call 13 11 14

Beyond Blue: visit the website or call 1300 22 4636

Further information and resources

Queensland disasters

Recovery after a disaster

Manage stress after a disaster

Find a mental health service

Helplines, counselling and support groups

Beyond Blue: Looking after yourself after a disaster

Information for children, teens and young adults

Supporting your teen when natural disaster strikes

Four ways you can help your kids deal with natural disasters

Headspace: how to cope with natural disasters

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Last updated: 11 December 2019