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  • 3 March 2022
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Coping with the Stress of Emergency Relocation

Hal Morgan

Wildfires, floods, storms, wars, and other natural and man-made disasters can force people from their homes. Sometimes that evacuation is temporary, and a return is possible once the danger has passed. Sometimes the relocation is long-lasting or even permanent, as when a home is destroyed or the risk of violence makes return impossible. If you have been forced from your home by violence or disaster, this article offers guidance on ways to cope with the stress and trauma you may be feeling.

The Stress and Trauma of Forced Relocation

Emergency or forced relocation is not a move made by choice. It is often made under extreme time pressure and sometimes in the face of danger. Factors that contribute to the stress and trauma of emergency relocation include

  • Disruption of daily routines
  • Separation from family and friends
  • Worries about the safety of people who have been or remain at risk
  • Worries about the condition of your home and your evacuated community
  • Grief over the loss of belongings
  • Financial loss and the pressure of unanticipated expenses
  • Concern about pets
  • Discomfort and lack of privacy in emergency housing

Forced relocation can be even more traumatic in the following circumstances:

  • Family members or friends die.
  • Violence is witnessed or experienced.
  • People are forced to flee to another country.
  • Refugees are made to feel unwelcome in their temporary homes or shelters.
  • A temporary refuge comes to feel permanent.

Any of these experiences can be distressing. In combination, they can leave you feeling shocked, confused, anxious and deeply unhappy. You might respond with wild swings of emotion, laughing one minute and crying the next. These short-term reactions are normal. Everyone reacts in their own way to experiences of disruption and loss. Here are some strategies to help you cope – both in the early days of your relocation and in the longer term – as you adjust to unplanned changes in your life.

Coping Strategies After an Emergency or Forced Relocation

There may be no way to make your emergency relocation easy or comfortable, and grief over any losses you’ve experienced may take time to process. Below are some key coping strategies can help you get through a difficult time.

Stay connected.

  • Take time to be with and attend to the needs of the people who are with you in your new location. You can help each other cope by sharing stories of what you have been through, talking about your feelings and making practical plans together. Do what you can to lift the emotions of the people around you, even as you acknowledge the pain and loss you and they may be feeling.
  • Use technology to stay connected with the people you are now separated from. Schedule regular times to talk by phone or video. They may be able to help you in practical ways, and you may be able to help them. You can certainly lift each other’s spirits just by keeping in close touch.

Establish a daily routine.

Find new activities to build into a regular routine. The predictability of a daily routine can make your temporary life more comfortable for both children and adults. Prepare meals at regular times. Go for a daily walk together. Read bedtime stories. They might not be the same activities you’d do at home, but a regular routine can be an emotional anchor after a significant disruption.

Lean on your spiritual beliefs and practices.

If prayer or reading a religious text is part of your life, let that be a comfort to you now. If you find release and relaxation in nature, yoga, meditation or something else, make room for those practices in your daily routine if you can.

Get involved in productive activities.

  • Make your new space as comfortable as possible, using whatever decorations and furniture you have.
  • Volunteer to help out in your shelter or temporary community by preparing group meals, organising activities or helping others establish connections with the people they have been separated from.
  • Get older children involved in caring for and playing with younger children, until new school and childcare routines can be established.

Learn about and engage with your new community.

  • Explore your new community. Learn the best places to get food and other necessities. Make an effort to meet people and make new friends, even if you don’t think you’ll be staying long.
  • If you’ve migrated to another country, learn the language. Find out who can help you learn about long-term housing and the health care system. Find out about your options for work.

Stay positive.

It’s normal to grieve your losses, but make an effort to look at the positive sides of your situation, too. Think about the good that might come of this disruption in your life, how new experiences or opportunities might benefit you, your children or the other people you love.

Seek and accept help.

  • Use counseling services if they are offered.
  • Ask for help in navigating the practical issues of living in your new home. That might be help in applying for relief aid or insurance payments for your material losses. If you’ve relocated to another country, you might need help learning the language, understanding the school and health care systems or learning about your options for work.

Abbott, A. (2016). The mental-health crisis among migrants. Nature, 538, 58–160.

Arenliu, A., Bertelsen, N., Saad, R., Abdulaziz, H., & Weine, S.M. (2020). War and displacement stressors and coping mechanisms of Syrian urban refugee families living in Istanbul. Journal of Family Psychology, 34(4), 392–401.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). (2022). Relocation stress: Helping families deal with the stress of relocation after a disaster. Retrieved 18 February 2022 from

Morgan, H. (2022, 23 February). Coping with the stress of emergency relocation (Z. Meeker & B. Schuette, Eds.). London: Workplace Options.

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