Coping with Natural Disasters

Natural disasters such as floods, bushfires and earthquakes can cause people to experience unusually strong reactions which may interfere with their normal ability to function. Although each person will react differently there are common responses that are experienced by those involved in, or those with family or friends affected by such events. Your response will depend on your personal circumstance, temperament and life at the time. Some people react immediately, some after a period of time, some intensely and some have delayed responses.

If you or your family have been affected by a natural disaster the following information could be useful.

Typical Reactions

Coming to terms with devastating events requires significant adjustment in a person's life. It can affect their physical and emotional well-being, their behaviour and their thinking. Outlined below are some of the normal reactions that are part of the recovery process as people try to make sense of what has happened.

  1. Physical (body) Change in sleep patterns, disturbed sleep, distressing dreams/nightmares, fatigue, nausea, changes in appetite, dizziness, fainting, headaches, difficulty breathing, rapid heart rate, chest pain (if this happens seek medical advice), feelings of weakness, tremors and/or feeling uncoordinated.
  2. Emotional (feelings) Feeling shock, fear, anger, sadness, shame, guilt, irritability, depression, grief, overwhelmed, abandoned or powerless, worrying about others, wanting to hide, feeling unsafe and/or anticipating danger.
  3. Behavioural (actions) Feeling irritated by others, avoiding or detaching from others, increase in use of cigarettes and/or alcohol, increase in use of other drugs, change in eating pattern, not wanting to study or pushing yourself to study, increased urgency about study, loss of motivation, loss of interest in normal activities, change in sexual activity, loss of routine and/or routine becomes more rigid.
  4. Cognitive (thinking) Thinking others don't care/aren't interested/won't understand, frequent thoughts of the event, flashbacks, trying to avoid painful memories, believing nothing else is important except the event, poor concentration, poor attention span, poor memory, difficulty making decisions, difficulty solving problems, confusion, disorientation, irrational thinking, difficulty making calculations, difficulty recalling names and/or slow thinking.

Helpful Strategies

If you are experiencing some of the reactions listed above here is a list of useful tips that may help you cope as you come to terms with what has happened. These tips are compiled from comments made by others who have found the strategies useful:

  • Get lots of rest and eat regular well-balanced meals (even if you do not feel like it).
  • Make time for exercise and relaxation.
  • Spend time with others. Visit people and be around friends
  • Tell your friends you might need to just be with them
  • Structure your time - try to maintain your normal routine wherever possible
  • Keep a journal and write your way through those sleepless hours. Write out feelings that you are not ready to or cannot share
  • Do things that make you feel good
  • Do not overdo it with caffeine, cigarettes, alcohol and other drugs
  • Make plans and break these into small, manageable steps
  • Do not rush it through. You may need a lot of time. Treat yourself as you would treat a well-liked friend


Some people benefit from extra help during this period, which may extend for some months. It is not a sign of weakness to ask for help. Often the help needed will be only short and simple but can prevent long-term problems.

You might ask for extra help if:

  • You are worried about how you are coping
  • You are concerned about your academic progress
  • You are finding it difficult to concentrate and are falling behind in your assignments
  • You are experiencing financial problems as a result of what happened
  • You are feeling hopeless and have lost motivation
  • You feel numb, empty and find yourself doing things to avoid unpleasant thoughts and feelings like drinking too much alcohol
  • You do not have any family or friends to talk to about your experience
  • You are worried about a friend or family member
  • Someone you know has been injured, killed or is missing

Assistance for Students

If you or your family have been affected by a natural disaster there are many supports available to help you at this time. Most students will be able to cope with support from friends, family and the Counselling service. UniSA Counselling help you to:

  • Call home free of charge
  • Access appropriate support services and resources available to you both inside and outside of the University
  • Negotiate any specialised, personal, academic or visa requirements
  • Negotiate extensions if you are unable to concentrate on study
  • Work out solutions for any other problems that you may be facing as a result of the natural disaster

All information will be strictly confidential.

Other Useful Resources and Links

Urgent Assistance

Make an Appointment

Metropolitan campuses/UniSA Online students
1300 301 703

Mount Gambier campus
(08) 8723 1999

Whyalla campus
(08) 8645 8233


Crisis and Emergency Contacts

Serious Incident on Campus

If you are involved in, or witness a serious or distressing incident on campus please contact Security for assistance.