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Looking after yourself and your family

Some advice for taking care of yourself and others, including children, after an emergency.

Crisis events like natural disasters, accidents and terror attacks can be very distressing. It's normal to feel upset, anxious and distressed after a crisis. Stress caused by these events can have impacts on all aspects of your life.

The emotional effects of disasters may continue for a long time. This is a normal response to such an abnormal experience. Here's some advice for taking care of yourself and others, including children.

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Dealing with stress

Normal reactions to stress

It's normal to feel these reactions to a highly stressful event:

  • finding it hard to think, concentrate and remember details
  • restlessness, unable to relax
  • problems sleeping
  • muscle tension
  • headaches, nausea
  • feel angry, upset, sad, moody
  • avoiding people or not wanting them around

Help with stress symptoms

Accept that you have been through a highly stressful experience.
Things will be different for a while and you may have strong emotional reactions. Acceptance is the first stage of recovery.

Allow time for the memories, dreams or flashbacks to fade.
When you experience flashbacks or dreams, give them attention and then put them aside. Don't try to fight or suppress them, confronting the reality bit by bit can help you come to terms with it.

You may have trouble concentrating and remembering things.
If this happens, use aids, write things down and do things in short bursts.

It is normal to have changing moods after stressful events, so respect your emotions even if they are not normal for you.
Feeling bad usually passes quite soon, and it's best to tolerate it and see what it means rather than take it away with distractions.

If you are getting upset, angry, or distressed easily, try to plan the day so that you are not overwhelmed or exposed to upsetting or unhelpful information or experiences.
This includes limiting the media coverage you read or watch.

If you have trouble sleeping, plan for quality rather than quantity of sleep.
Wind down at night and spend time preparing to go to sleep; arrange to take cat-naps during the day.

Find people you trust to talk to about the event and your reactions.
Talking helps to defuse feelings and make sense of things and builds bridges with others.

Take extra care of yourself.
Critical incident stress makes people more susceptible to infections, accidents, emotional decisions or mistakes.

Adjust your lifestyle to your needs as they are now.
Don't just do things out of habit or because you planned them some time ago if they no longer feel appropriate.

Avoid making important life decisions until you're feeling better.
But make as many small decisions on a day to day basis to ensure you have control over your life.

Coping with a major personal crisis

This booklet contains information about some of the reactions to abnormal events and suggests ways to cope after an emergency.

Helping others

Help family and friends

Spend time with your friends and family, offer support and listen, and help with practical tasks and chores. Give them the time, space and patience they need and don't try to talk people out of their reactions.

Spend time with the stressed person without judging or demanding - their recovery will occur in its own time.

Offer support and a listening ear - talking is one of the best things they can do to work things out, but they may need to go over things many more times than normal.

Help with practical tasks and chores - this enables more of their energy and time to be given to the recovery process.

Give them time, space and patience - don't take it personally if, at times, they are irritable, bad tempered or want to be alone. These are a natural part of the stress response and will pass as they recover.

Don't try to talk them out of their reactions, minimise the event, or say things like "you're lucky it wasn't worse", "pull yourself together", or "how do you think it was for me?".  Don't try to get them to look on the bright side - stressed people need to concentrate on themselves at first.  They will feel supported if you let them know you are concerned, want to help and are trying to understand. They will see your viewpoint as they recover.

Letting people talk is the best way for them to calm down and start thinking. You can help them without saying too much yourself.

  • Look directly at the person speaking to you.
  • Avoid interrupting.
  • Ask questions to make sure you understand them.
  • Don't judge or give opinions, let them say what they want to.
  • Don't tell them what they should think or feel.
  • Find out why a question is being asked before answering it.

Supporting children

When speaking to children about what happened, be real and explain what adults are feeling and doing. Children can usually already see this for themselves. Keep updating them and explaining what is happening in simple words so they can understand it.

If children are experiencing distress:

  • explain what you are doing to keep them safe, show how your knowledge helps meet the threat.
  • get them to talk about what they think might happen and correct any wrong ideas.
  • reassure them that they are brave, will manage well and you are confident in them.
  • show affection and comfort them when they are upset.

After the Emergency

Encourage mates and family to look after themselves after an emergency.

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Further support

When to seek additional help

Sometimes personal recovery needs to be supported by specialist knowledge to ensure that the stress does not linger unnecessarily or lead to other health problems. Stress problems can resolve rapidly with advice from professionals, such as counsellors or psychologists.

Consider seeking further support if:

  • physical or other symptoms are causing concern.
  • there is no one to talk to or relationships are being affected by the stress.
  • you feel emotionally numb, depressed or over anxious.
  • you continue to have disturbed sleep and nightmares.
  • you are unable to handle the intense feelings or physical sensations.
  • you are becoming accident prone and are increasing the use of drugs and alcohol.
  • recovery has stalled or does not seem to be proceeding.
  • Doctor logo

    Contact your doctor

  • II logo

    Phone Lifeline on 13 11 14

  • Beyond Blue logo

    Phone Beyondblue on 1300 22 4636

  • Kids Helpline logo

    Phone Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800

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