Managing Traumatic Stress Following a Mass Transportation Disaster

A mass transportation disaster involves the community as a whole, in addition to those who are directly involved. Families, friends, and residents of a community tied to a transportation disaster often experience a ripple effect of grief and sadness. Emotional responses following any traumatic event  may vary from person to person as each individual deals with death, serious injury, and loss differently.

Common reactions

There are many common reactions among those managing traumatic events. Below is a list of a few common reactions. It is important to keep in mind that these responses are normal and even expected by those impacted.

  • Recurring dreams or nightmares
  • Repetitive thoughts about the events surrounding the disaster
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Repeated upsetting memories about the traumatic experience
  • Feelings of anger at the loss
  • Feelings of confusion and blaming of those associated with the event
  • Feeling emotionally numb and withdrawn
  • Loss of enjoyment in usually pleasurable activities
  • Becoming overprotective of family members
  • Social isolation
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Increased conflict with family members, close friends, or coworkers.

How you can cope

A mass transportation disaster can leave survivors feeling helpless, scared, overwhelmed, and unsettled. Below are some suggestions of how to cope with the aftermath of this kind of disaster.

  • Address problems one at a time, prioritizing for importance. This will help to minimize feeling overwhelmed.
  • Put off any major decisions. Allow yourself time to grieve and recover as you may not be able to make the best decisions when you are dealing with grief and loss.
  • Allow yourself to feel sad and grieve. When you have the chance, take time to reflect on what has occurred. Talking with others can be helpful and remind you that you are not alone with your stress or depression.
  • Practice healthy habits. Help yourself with self-care. This can include eating well and getting enough sleep. This is especially important in times of high stress.
  • Reestablish a routine. This can include regular meal times, exercising, or going to bed at a certain time. These will help you feel a sense of order as well as a sense of calm.
  • Anticipate that strong feelings may return on anniversaries. For example, one-month, six-month, or one-year anniversaries of the incident may bring up intense feelings once again. Try to spend this time with family and friends to support and care, rather than spend it alone. For more information about coping with disaster anniversaries, please visit the APA’s Help Center Article Anxiety and Sadness May Increase on Anniversary of Traumatic Event.

How family and friends can help

In the most troubling and uncertain of times, it is very helpful for family members and friends to support loved ones who may be struggling. Some tips for those close to a survivor of a mass transit disaster are listed below.

  • Encourage the survivor to seek out other survivors or others who have been in similar situations to find understanding and support.
  • Encourage the survivor to find a support group for disaster survivors to talk with one another and voluntarily share thoughts, anxieties, and fears resulting from their shared experience.
  • You and the survivor should avoid untimely, inaccurate, and ongoing media coverage of the accident. It can be unsettling for survivors to relive and witness the events they have been through.
  • Identify and consider what factors most troubling to the survivor or could remind them of their disaster experience and limit their exposure to it.

Recovery and the future

Recovery can take time. Life may feel different. It is possible to move on and find new meaning, purpose, and positive emotions. APA’s Road to Resilience brochure describes steps that you can take to build resilience – the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress. For more tips on how to manage stress after a mass transportation disaster, please visit the APA’s HelpCenter article How to Manage Traumatic Stress.

If you notice persistent feelings of distress or hopelessness or if you are struggling to attend to your daily responsibilities, consult with a licensed and experienced mental health professional. Psychologists and other mental health professionals are trained to help you successfully manage life’s hardships and pursue a plan for a more positive and meaningful future.

Thanks to psychologists Ester Cole, PhD and Denruth Lougeay, PhD for their assistance with this article. (Article adapted from original.)

Prepared July 2013.


American Red Cross Guide for Families Affected by Transportation Disasters. GuideForFamiliesAffectedByTransportationDisasters.pdf

Raphael, B. A Primary Prevention Action Programme: Psychiatric Involvement Following a Major Rail Disaster. Omega Journal of Death and Dying, 10(3): pp. 211-226.
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