Helping in Times of Natural Disaster when you live with Anxiety

Laura Dowler
7 min readMay 28, 2018

At the beginning of the year I put together a guide for being an activist with anxiety. In the wake of Hurricane Irma I found myself struggling again with balancing my mental health with my desire to make a difference in the world. I thought it might be helpful to create another resource for helping in the wake of natural disasters, so I put together this guide. Some of it is adapted from my earlier guide, and some of the information is new. I’ve divided this guide into 3 sections, but not all natural disasters give you a before and during the event to address.

Part 1: Before the Event

  • Take disaster preparedness and/or basic first aid classes.
    Disasters can be times of chaos, and chaos can be a big anxiety trigger. By taking classes before disaster even strikes you will be better prepared to help afterwards and also have a better understanding of what will happen during the event. This will help put you in a good mental space for helping others as the event unfolds.
  • Prepare a plan
    Much like taking classes, having an emergency plan will help the event seem less unpredictable. There are many resources that will tell you exactly what to put in an emergency go bag and what to keep on hand. Don’t forget about your furry four-legged friends — make sure you have their papers in case you need to find a pet friendly shelter and make sure they have food and water too.
  • Buy extra supplies to give away
    If you have the means to prepare for disaster early, take into account that others might not be so lucky. Hurricane Irma hit on a weekend, leaving those who were living paycheck to paycheck unable to properly prepare because by the time they got paid on Friday all of the grocery stores and gas stations had run out of supplies. When you do your shopping at the beginning of the season, buy whatever extra supplies you can and find an organization that will make sure they get to those in need. If you can, consider making and donating a whole extra go-bag.
  • What if I can’t afford supplies?
    If you need supplies and are unable to afford them that can also be an anxiety trigger. Try preparing a list of organizations you can reach out to in emergencies so that if you are having trouble preparing for the storm you know where to seek help.
  • See doctor if you think you might need medication
    There is no shame in needing and/or using medication to control your anxiety. If you think that the event you are preparing for might be very triggering to your anxiety, talk to your doctor so that you can make a mental health plan that may or may not include a prescription.
  • Evacuate if you feel that is best for your safety and mental health
    If you decide it is best for you to leave and you have the means, that’s OK. Recognize the privilege in being able to make that decision and fight to change the system, but don’t feel guilty for taking care of yourself.

Part 2: During the event
For a natural disaster like a hurricane, there might be a during part of the event in which you will not know exactly what is going on and have to take care of both your physical and mental safety.

  • Consider volunteering at a shelter
    If you are anxious to weather a storm alone, consider volunteering at a shelter so you can be with other people. Volunteering might also help distract you from negative anxiety thoughts by giving you tasks to focus on.
  • Consider staying at a shelter
    Volunteering expends a lot of emotional energy in a time when you might not have that much to give. If you don’t have the emotional energy to volunteer, you can still consider staying at a shelter. This could potentially alleviate anxiety by knowing that you are in a safe space.
  • Make a plan in case you fall under mandatory evacuation orders
    If you are socially anxious and feel like staying in a shelter might be problematic for you, create a plan for what you can do to help alleviate your anxiety in case you are in a mandatory evacuation zone.

Part 3: After the event

  • Take time to process the event
    It is normal to feel overwhelmed in the wake of a natural disaster. Give yourself time to process your feelings about what happened, and know that it’s OK to take the time to do this. The chaos of the event might make your regular routines even more important to you, and you might not be ready to jump into people heavy volunteering right away. Know that after the immediate aftermath has passed there will be the need for volunteers and helping. This article points out that the window of compassion and outpouring of help dries up faster than it should, so you can be prepared to pick up where everyone else leaves off.
  • Think about the ways in which you are comfortable volunteering
    Know your own comfort zone and find ways to volunteer that meet community needs while also letting you maintain your own boundaries. The following suggestions are ways to help that I gravitate to as a person living with anxiety.
  • Write
    As severe weather events become more common, the need to educate the general population on climate change and the outsized impact of climate change on our most vulnerable citizens will increase. If you enjoy writing, consider penning op-eds or letters to the editor that draw attention to these issues. Even if you don’t get them published, you can post the words on your personal social media to get the word out.
  • Signal boost
    Use the power of social media by tweeting, posting, or instagramming important information about how to help, which donations are needed, and which fundraising websites are making sure the aid gets to people who most need it.
  • Give money
    Not everyone has the means to give money, but for those who can, it is a great way to make a difference. Often times in the wake of natural disasters well meaning people send supplies that aren’t really needed and they end up causing more trouble than help. The one thing that is always needed is money. Find local organizations that are organizing the relief effort — food banks and community organizing groups are likely candidates — and donate to them.
  • Make/Buy Art
    If you are artistically minded,consider creating art specifically to sell in order to raise funds for the cause of your choice. If you are not a creator but an admirer, find an art fundraiser and support your favorite cause that way. Shing Yin Khor has set a great example for creating art that makes a difference — after Harvey she held a painting marathon and created paintings of tex-mex food with the proceeds going to a local food bank.
  • Cook and/or donate hot food
    In the wake of Irma, many people were left without the means to cook hot meals so local organizations put together community cookouts. You can connect with a local organization to provide food for those who have lost power. If you are a cook, maybe you could prepare a homecooked meal, or offer to cook on-site at the cookout. Even if you don’t cook, consider purchasing pizza or something else that can be easily shared. You can also make care packages of non-perishable food that can be given away at community cookouts and delivered to those who need them.
  • Have your own supply drive
    Consider hosting a party for your friends and encourage them to bring non-perishable food and household products that can be donated to relief efforts. If you really want to make it a party you can all write letters to your congresspeople together encouraging them to take action on climate change.
  • Host an online supply drive or fundraiser
    If you know of an organization that needs supplies for relief efforts create an online wishlist so people can donate from all over. Alternatively, you can host an online fundraiser — make sure you research organizations that have a history of making sure the help gets to the places it is most needed.
  • Help people one-on-one
    One of the biggest needs after a natural disaster is helping community members navigate FEMA paperwork. In the best of situations government paperwork is overly complicated and hard to figure out. In the immediate aftermath of natural disaster people may not have access to the internet to fill out the forms and the phones are often jammed with hours long wait times. If you have a computer,an internet connection, and a public place, partner with an organization to provide help with FEMA.
  • Put together resources
    Another need in the wake of a natural disaster is accurate information. This is a great activity for librarians and research minded individuals. Guides that give up to date lists of deadlines to apply for aid, organizations that are offering aid, and contacts for emergency services are all necessary. In the case of things like food pantries, sometimes the web information is not updated regularly, so calling to confirm that the information being handed out is correct is also very helpful. Resources for how to report injustices like being fired for not working during dangerous weather are also necessary.