Helping After Terrorist Attacks? Know Your Limits

This piece was originally published in Psychology Today's To Heal and Carry On on September 19, 2016.

You will be a more effective helper if you remember to help yourself too.

A pipe bomb exploded in New Jersey. Nearly 30 people were injured in an explosion in New York City. Nine people were stabbed at a Minnesota mall. All this happened on Saturday.

Whether you are a professional helper or a friend helping a loved one following these events, it’s important to know your limits and practice self-care.

When we help others affected by disasters we sometimes forget to consider our own needs. This can put us at risk for compassion fatigue and burnout. The people you are helping need you now—but they are also going to need you over the long haul.

You will be a more effective helper if you remember to help yourself too.

That’s why in this post I share some proven ways to prevent burnout when helping after a disaster. To illustrate each point I also discuss how I recently applied each of these tips in my own life around a recent deployment to the Louisiana flood zone.  

Listen to Your Body

When helping amidst a disaster it’s important to pay attention to what your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations are trying to tell you.

I just returned home from an intense trip in Baton Rouge, Louisiana (and a quick side trip to Washington, D.C.) at the end of this week. I had helped lead a team of 18 from the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College. While deployed, our team provided disaster spiritual and emotional care training, research, and consultation among communities affected by the recent flooding.

Then a couple days after returning home I found myself startled awake by a vivid dream. I was caught in the middle of catch-22 disaster scenario. Here’s the actual post I shared on Facebook Saturday morning with my friends:



I took the dream as my body’s way of telling me I needed to slow down.

Be Aware of Triggers

Be mindful that helping others affected by disasters can sometimes unearth your previous hurts and struggles.

I found myself more affected during this recent deployment to Louisiana by the stories I heard and by what I saw than I normally experience when deployed. Ironically, I just recently wrote How to Cope with Difficult Milestones for Katrina’s 11th anniversary. I explained how current events sometimes cause past-unwanted memories and emotional distress to resurface.

I was caught off guard when what I had just written about played out in my own personal life.

Despite the fact that I’ve helped with disasters around the globe, this one was different for me. It took me a while to be able to figure what was going on. Then it hit me. I realized that as a Hurricane Katrina survivor myself, lots of old memories and feelings were getting triggered.  

This was the first time I had been back to the Deep South since I moved to the Chicago area about six years ago. Katrina’s anniversary was still in the rear view mirror of my memory. I also hadn’t anticipated so many of the Louisiana Flood survivors I was going to meet would also be Katrina survivors.

Because I was aware of where the triggers were coming from I was able to work through them with some additional social support on the trip.

Find Time to Recharge Among the Chaos

As best as you can look for ways to bring some "normalcy" to your daily routine in the wake of disaster.

For those of you helping after Saturday’s string of tragedies you are probably feeling like there is more to be done than there are hours in the day. You are right. Yet, despite all that remains undone, remember that you’ll be able to help longer if you find ways to recharge as you go, even if just briefly.

From the Louisiana flood-affected area I flew directly to Washington, DC. I was looking forward to a quite flight and some introvert time. It just so happened though that the passenger seated next to me was a Hurricane Katrina survivor from Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Within minutes of boarding my flight I found myself listening to more Katrina stories and offering informal support.

After giving a listening ear and making sure passenger E row 20 was okay I realized I needed find a way to squeeze in some rest on what was left of the flight.

When I worked in private practice I found carving out even just a few minutes in between sessions to listen to some jazz helped me relax. Thus, I put on my headphones and let John Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” and a book I picked up in the airport occupy my thoughts.

Though I didn’t even make it halfway through Coltrane’s Blue Train album before landing, I felt better having spent a little time recharging. I was now ready to tackle my time in DC.

Set Some Personal Boundaries

Don't be afraid to establish some boundaries to ensure proper self-care when helping after a disaster.

In Washington, DC I spent two days at the White House and FEMA Headquarters learning and sharing about disasters. This was an incredible opportunity. I enjoyed soaking up all the new information I was learning. I felt grateful for all the great new relationships I was making. Having just traveled from the Louisiana disaster zone to sitting in FEMA’s National Response Coordination Center boardroom felt surreal. 

Too many late nights and early mornings while deployed were starting to catch up with me.

By the time I returned home from my travels I was getting close to running on fumes.  I realized I needed to practice set some personal boundaries if I was going to avoid hitting empty. I gave myself permission to take Saturday off from thinking about disasters and work. I resisted the urge to check my email. I avoided reading the news on my cell phone. 

Instead I focused on spending time with my family. I worked on getting things done around the house. After I got my children to bed I decided to take a break from household tasks as well. I decided to rent the movie Miles Ahead and was settling in for a relaxing night (if you haven’t noticed I like jazz, a lot).

That’s when I decided to take a quick glance at social media on my cell phone. Suddenly I was flooded with news reports of Saturday’s tragic attacks.

Practice Self-Compassion

For disasters I cannot respond to in-person I try and help in some tiny way through my writing. My instinct was to start a late night pot of coffee and push through the fatigue.

I found myself coming up blank on what to write. I was having a hard time concentrating. I couldn’t work up the energy I needed. Despite my best efforts to pull myself together to help, I realized there still wasn’t much left in the tank. I concluded that I needed to take it easy and get more rest.

As I started to put the bag of coffee beans back into the cabinet I found myself starting to feel guilty.

I knew there were people rushing into harms way after the attacks to help those in need. I envisioned others waiting in hospital rooms worrying about their loved ones. Those were the people doing the hard work of helping. All I was trying to do was muster up around 1,500 words on a computer screen.

It was in that moment that I remembered something my colleague Dr. Laura Shannonhouse from Georgia State University shared last week in a training we lead in Louisiana. She reminded a room full of helpers from the flood zone that self-compassion is an important part of the helping process. Replaying this part of the training in my head helped me realize that needing a break doesn’t mean you don’t care; it just means you are human. I decided to take her advice to heart and took the rest of the night off.

As I came to grips with my own limitations, I felt the guilt start to recede. 


It’s now Sunday night as I finish up this post. As I reflect on my day, it looked a lot like yesterday. I put the self-care practices described above to the test again. Other than attending a house of worship this morning my Saturday and Sunday were more alike than they were different. Like the night before, I even checked social media on my cell phone after getting my children to sleep.

I was quickly inundated with news about the attacks. Yet, the outcome was different this time. I had the energy I needed to sit down at the computer and write this post in one fairly brief setting (I’m normally a slow writer, as in painfully slow). Practicing self-care gave me the reserve I needed to write this article.

Before I wrap up I want to share a caveat. My stress and fatigue I disclosed about and worked through in this post aren’t that out of the ordinary from what the average person might experience every now and then. I also realize my struggles I talked about are very minor in comparison to the challenges and pain so many of you are going through after Saturday’s senseless acts of violence. Lastly, writing a blog post on preventing burnout doesn’t come anywhere near the incredible altruistic acts many of you are doing on behalf of those suffering. 

If you take nothing else from my small contribution here, I hope that it’s this. Don’t forget to care for yourself as you care for others. As for myself, I think I’ll skip checking Facebook and Twitter on my cell phone before turning in for bed tonight.

Dr. Jamie D. Aten is founder and director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Disaster Ministry Conference at Wheaton College. His latest books include, as co-author, the “Disaster Ministry Handbook” and, as co-editor, “Spiritually Oriented Psychotherapy forTrauma.” Follow him on Twitter at @drjamieaten or Subscribe here to get the latest from via the Humanitarian Disaster Institute sent directly to your inbox.