Healing after Harvey

by | Sep 5, 2017

Written by:

Hannah Sommer Garza, PhD, Rosie Polifroni, PhD, & Tyson Reuter, PhD

Healing after a natural disaster is difficult. There’s no sugar-coating that fact. Hurricane and Tropical Storm Harvey was considered the largest natural disaster in the history of the United States, and it hit us right here in the Texas coast. Even though the storm itself has passed, it will take time and significant effort for the people impacted to heal. Many people who were impacted by Harvey have likely experienced a range of feelings–fear, concern, numbness, anger, sadness, grief, and maybe even feelings of appreciation and hope. It may be difficult to truly know how to move forward emotionally.

Thankfully, research shows that humans are incredibly resilient beings even in the face of disaster. The vast majority of people impacted directly by Harvey will recover. That is not to say that the recovery will happen overnight. This was a huge natural disaster, and temporary disruption is to be expected. However, there are some things you can do to propel yourself forward in the process of healing. In particular, start with your go-to stress management and coping strategies that have helped you manage difficult times in the past. Below, we’ve included some research-supported suggestions for coping that we hope will help you to move forward with healing after Harvey.

Give Yourself Time

Being distressed after a natural disaster is normal and to be expected. Allow yourself time to grieve and to process what has happened, and anticipate that this will be a difficult time in your life. Remember that it is the norm to bounce back within a few months of the event.

Seek Social Support

Get support from people who understand what you’re going through and who are willing to lend a hand (or an ear) to help you get through this difficult time.

Benefits of Seeking Social Support. There are three huge emotional benefits to getting connected with your community in response to a natural disaster. First, you will see that you are not alone. Humans are social creatures, and we are hard-wired to be connected with others. Knowing that you are not alone, even when going through hard times, can ease the struggles as you heal. Second, by talking with other Harvey survivors, you may pick up some helpful coping strategies that they have been using to get through these tough times. Third, research tells us that individual resilience, which is the capacity of a person to bounce back from adversity, is dependent on a larger systems-level resilience (i.e., community). In particular, social connection helps to build emotional resilience following disaster (Boon, 2014). As Houston residents, we’ve seen first-hand the awesome, selfless, and inspiring spirit of this city to support one another following Harvey. Get connected with your neighbors and other parts of your community as you heal.

How to Get Support. The most natural instinct for so many who will begin to grieve following Harvey, will be to withdraw and isolate, which, in turn, will lead to further anxiety and significant depression. Instead of withdrawing, consider reaching out. Reach out to family members, romantic partners, friends, neighbors, church or temple staff, others who have lost their homes too, and seek mental health support. If you are asking questions like, “why me?”, “why our home?”, “what do we do next?”; know that you are not alone. On the other end of the phone, across the street, at a shelter, at your church, at your work place, and even at your child’s school, is someone who wants to help you. All you have to do is reach out. Reach out for that support that is waiting. Reach out once, twice, ten times. You are not a burden. Your network of those who want to help you will provide immeasurable comfort, if you let them.

How to Give Support. Let’s also take a moment and speak to those of you who know friends, family members, and even acquaintances, that have lost everything and who may be finding it hard to reach out and ask for help. You are on the front lines of helping and giving. Don’t be afraid to make a phone call, send a text, or stop by. You are not bothering anyone. In fact, you are helping more than you may ever know. You are offering continued hope for someone who is grieving. It is easy to offer help right after a tragedy, but as you go back to your ‘normal’ lives and schedules, don’t forget those who are not as fortunate to be able to do the same. Remember them in two weeks, one month, three months, even six months from now. When you reach out, don’t just ask, “what can I do to help?”, be specific. Ask what they need for dinner. Ask if they need help with dropping or picking up their children from school. Ask if they need to borrow one of your vehicles. Ask if you can do their laundry. Ask what they need from the grocery store. Instead of answering a general question with “we’re ok”, they will be able to tell you what their continued needs are without feeling like a burden to others.

Examine Your Mindset

If you’re ruminating on the difficulty and pain caused by Harvey without being able to take steps forward, this may be a sign that you’re getting stuck. Start to challenge your thinking so you can move toward your goals.

Avoid seeing the problems as insurmountable. It can be easy to feel overwhelmed with the logistical steps needed to move forward after Harvey. If you find that you’re getting stuck because the problems seem too large to handle, take a step back and re-evaluate. Set realistic goals for yourself. Also try breaking each goal into small, digestible pieces that do not feel as overwhelming. For instance, submitting an insurance claim for flood damage can be a huge undertaking…but there are ways to make it feel less overwhelming. Break the task into smaller components–call your insurance company to find out their process for submitting a claim, separate items to be photographed into small groups, photograph items within each group, complete your claim forms, etc. If you find that you get stuck on a task, ask yourself, “what is the smallest step I can take today to move toward this goal?”

Notice how challenging avoidance helps you to feel better. As you start to build momentum toward solving the tasks ahead of you, your sense of accomplishment will increase. Research shows that engaging in activities that give you a sense of accomplishment boosts mood and counteracts feelings of depression or sadness.

Take a news break. Oftentimes, the media covers the worst case scenarios, which can skew your mindset on what’s really happening for you. If you find that watching the news is making you feel worse or is keeping you from taking steps forward, take a break from it. Either focus your energy on taking care of yourself or on solving a problem ahead of you. Those are actions that will help you to feel better.

Accept the circumstances that cannot be changed. Not every problem is solvable. There are likely circumstances that have occurred due to Harvey that don’t have clear solutions. For instance, you may have lost special photographs or prized possessions as a result of the flood damage. Items like these are not exactly replaceable, and that is truly painful. Acknowledge that pain and grieve what was lost. Ultimately, allow yourself space to heal and focus on what you can control.

Be Kind to Yourself

This is a difficult time, and it is especially important to focus on taking care of yourself.

Look for opportunities of self-discovery. Connect with your values and what is really meaningful to you in your life. Oftentimes, significant life events cause people to examine their lives in new ways and to get more connected with what really matters to them. Take this time to learn more about yourself. Perhaps you are passionate about your environment or community, or you want to reconnect with friends and family, or maybe you want to enroll in a course or training on an area of interest. Get connected with what really matters to you.

Be self-compassionate. Dealing with the aftermath of Harvey is difficult and stressful. Be kind to yourself by acknowledging how hard it is and by comforting yourself. Try treating yourself as you would treat a close friend or loved one going through a hard time. Let yourself know that “you’re doing the best you can” or “today was difficult, but you’ll get through this challenge.” Check out this website for some guided meditations, self-compassion exercises, and information on self-compassion from its leading researcher (**link http://selfcompassion.org/**).

Get engaged in healthy coping behaviors. Although it may be difficult right now, try to focus on eating a balanced diet, drinking water, exercising, regulating sleep, and doing meditation or other relaxation techniques known to help manage stress. Also think about using other healthy coping strategies that have worked for you in the past, because those are most likely to benefit you now. Avoid drinking alcohol or doing drugs to cope, because they are depressants and can de-motivate you for taking steps toward meaningful goals.

Develop or re-engage in a routine. Your routine has been disrupted due to Harvey. Do your best to move forward by creating some routine structure to your day. Our brains love predictability and structure, so create that for yourself. Try to wake up and go to sleep at a regular time each day. Establish certain things you want to do on a daily or weekly basis. Ideally, include some healthy coping strategies (i.e. taking steps toward goals, taking care of yourself, doing things you like to do) as part of your routine.

Get Support from Professionals

If your emotional reaction to Harvey is above and beyond what would be expected OR your symptoms of distress last longer than 6 months, getting help from a professional is likely warranted. Look into options for support groups or individual therapy in your community. If you’re interested in joining a support group, try to find one that is facilitated by psychologists or other trained professionals. Similarly, if you’re interested in individual therapy, try to find psychologists or trained professionals who use evidence-based approaches in their work. Recommended approaches include cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), solution-focused therapy, and problem-solving therapy. Depending on your symptoms and areas of concern, it may also be helpful to find a therapist specializing in grief and loss or trauma. You can find psychologists near you by contacting the Texas Psychological Association: http://www.texaspsyc.org/.

Ways to Seek (or Provide) Support through Organizations

In addition to these coping strategies, numerous organizations throughout the greater Houston area are available to provide resources and help move Houstonians toward regrowth. Research also shows that helping others can have a profound impact on health and happiness (Dunn et al., 2008; Post, 2005). The following are a few of the resources available, whether seeking support for yourself and family, or providing it for others.

To find a shelter, call 800-RED-CROSS or visit: www.redcross.org/shelter

For food assistance, contact the Houston Food Bank at 832-369-9390 or visit: www.houstonfoodbank.org/services/if-you-need-food

To find family and friends or to register yourself as safe, visit the American Red Cross at: www.safeandwell.communityos.org/cms/

To report a missing child, contact the National Emergency Child Locator Center at: 1-866-908-9570

To search for a lost pet, contact the Houston SPCA at: http://www.houstonspca.org/harvey/

To apply for disaster assistance, call 1-800-621-3362 or visit: www.disasterassistance.gov

To donate to the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund, established by Mayor Sylvester Turner, text HARVEY2017 to 91999 or visit: https://ghcf.org/hurricane-relief/

Finally, if you are unsure where to donate, the following website is an excellent resource as it rates charities based on transparency, accountability, financial health, and overall effectiveness at distributing donations: https://www.charitynavigator.org/

Coming Together with Hope and Healing

This is a difficult time right now, and it will take time and effort to heal. We’ve provided some evidence-based suggestions for moving forward with the healing process. All in all, focus on what you can control, seek out support, and continue to take steps toward solving problems and taking care of yourself. Evaluate what’s working and what’s not working so you can continue to work toward your ultimate goals. This is a time for connection and growth. This is a time for healing and hope.


This article was adapted from American Psychological Association (APA) and Texas Psychological Association (TPA) disaster relief resources: http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/

Other Resources

Boon, H. J. (2014). Disaster Resilience in a Flood-Impacted Rural Australian Town. Natural Hazards, 71(1), 683-701.

Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science, 319(5870), 1687-1688.

Post, S. G. (2005). Altruism, happiness, and health: It’s good to be good. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 12(2), 66-77.