Sleeping in the Aftermath: Tips for disaster survivors

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Hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, wildfires, floods: The year 2017 might be called “The Year of Disasters,” given the onslaught of natural calamities that seem to have stricken every corner of the globe (remember the heatwaves earlier this year?). Living in the aftermathof some disaster is going to wreak havoc on millions of people this year.

So many reasons not to sleep

Sleeping in the aftermath of disaster is hard, for so many reasons: personal loss and grief, property damage, fear and uncertainty, ongoing hazards, economic hardship, physical injury and illness, even basic logistics.

After all, if every room in your home is flooded, or your house has collapsed in a quake or is currently burning down… just where are you expected to sleep (assuming you’ll be able to)?

While the American Sleep Apnea Association (ASAA) cannot ensure every person victimized by a natural disaster will find quality sleep in any reasonable quantity following a natural disaster, we can help you address current problems and show you the value of a good night’s rest even (and especially) in its aftermath.


If you aren’t in a 100 percent safe space right now, please strive to find that safe space soon. Find a shelter, ask for help or a place to crash among friends and neighbors, leave your home at least for the time being. And do it soon.

Disaster repairs can take months. Living in unsafe or unsanitary conditions so soon following an event while waiting for rebuilding assistance—which could be weeks away, at minimum—is a guarantee you won’t sleep, or at least not well.

While it’s understandable that one may not wish to evacuate their cherished home, it’s still better to leave, collect yourself mentally and physically, and return when conditions are livable.

If you must sleep outside (even if only for a few hours), triple-check that you are in a safe place away from rising water, structures that could shift or collapse, out of direct sunlight, and protected from the elements.

But please, go to a shelter or find a better location with a safe interior after that.

How sleep helps during times of crisis

The less you sleep, the more likely you will:

It’s bad enough that you are stuck in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Sleep helps you prevent harm to yourself and others, stay physically strong, keep your spirits up, make informed decisions, stay sharp during times of crisis, and maintain the stamina necessary to survive calamity.

A Word about PTSD

“PTSD doesn’t develop immediately, it develops after about a month,” Dr. Asim Shah recently told CBS News. The chief of the division of community psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine led the call to provide mental health services for evacuees at shelters at both the Houston Convention Center and NGR Stadium in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

“So we haven’t seen this group of people yet,” Shah said, “but we expect to after 30 days or so.”

PTSD is a complex condition that can have a lasting impact if not addressed at onset. One of its chief symptoms? Poor sleep (insomnia, sleep fragmentation, nightmare disorder, night terrors).

The ASAA has mobilized its CPAP Assistance Program to help those who have lost their PAP devices and masks for their therapy due to hurricane evacuation in Texas, Louisiana and Florida. If you are a hurricane victim and need a replacement PAP device or mask, we will waive your $100 application fee for the device or your $25.00 application fee for a mask.


For medical professionals connected to emergency clinics at medical centers and shelters in hurricane-damaged areas: Please contact us directly about your needs, or to receive more information: Call 1.888.293.3650 or send an email to [email protected]. We can bulk send PAP machines and masks directly to you for on-the-spot dissemination.


It’s okay to grieve, to be upset, to cry, to become angry, or to feel frustrated with your situation. These are normal human responses to strife.

But in between moments of struggle with life in the aftermath—there are sure to be plenty more—you also have opportunities to take action to improve circumstances for yourself, your loved ones, and your community. When you take positive action for any reason—and especially if it helps others besides yourself—you’re going to sleep better at night.


Here are some ways you can help yourself to sleep better so you can better endure the challenges you face in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

Make sure you have adequate sleeping quarters

This doesn’t necessarily mean a bedroom, or even a bed! But it means a dry place where you can recline comfortable and safely, with few environmental disruptions (noise, light, odor, poor air quality, sense of personal insecurity, exposure to weather).

If your mattress is wet, forget about it. You’ll probably want to get rid of it (due to mold issues).

A comfy couch, reclining chair, or air mattress can work. If you have an RV to sleep in, and it’s in a safe and secure location, try that option.

If you have no place to sleep where you are, please ask for space at the home of a friend of family member. If this is not an option, please consider a shelter or, if you have the means, a hotel.

For CPAP users

If you use PAP therapy and require electricity to run your machine, make it a priority to find a power source if you don’t have access to electricity or don’t have a battery backup in your emergency kit.

Local shelters, fire departments, and clinics, as well as hardware stores, may be the first places to ask for help. A handy neighbor with the skills and materials to set up a makeshift battery power supply for your PAP machine could also work.

Practice the best sleep hygiene possible

Go to bed and rise in the morning at the same time every single day. Your circadian rhythms inform every cell in your body; if they remain intact, you will be better for it.

Filter out noise. You can expect to hear more noise than usual at this time (sirens, earth-moving equipment, utility trucks, helicopters). Wear earplugs or listen to white noise, if possible.

Filter out light. You may discover more ambient light than usual at this time (task lighting for utility repairs, shelter floodlights, glowing from nearby fires, search lights). Wear an eye mask or hang sheets over windows.

Filter the air and the water. Both may be riddled with pollutants. If you have access to air or water filtration systems and the power to operate them, put them to use. Be vigilant! Both air and water can carry noxious contaminants that can’t be seen by the naked eye but could wreak havoc on your sleep and overall wellness.

Stay cool. Use fans or AC, if possible; if not, try these options.

Keep your sleeping space clean and tidy. Odors and microorganisms lurk in cluttered and unclean spaces. Make your sleep space as important as your bathroom and your kitchen. Having a tidy space for sleep also makes it easily, psychologically, to relax.

Avoid stimulants. Coffee is at the top of this list for a reason. Drinking coffee after lunch may lead to poor sleep onset later, excessive sleepiness the following day, and new dependence on caffeine. This is not a healthy habit to get into during times of stress.

Choose decaf or herbal options that don’t have caffeine in them after noon. And don’t use drugs (over-the-counter, prescription, or illegal) for a pick me up. Adequate sleep is the best energizer.

Avoid depressants and relaxants. This means alcohol and other substances (over-the-counter, prescription, or illegal). Find natural ways to relax first. Most substances will interfere with whole sleep quality and architecture and ultimately leave you more sleep deprived and unhealthy.

Write down your worries at bedtime. Racing thoughts are a huge problem during anxious times. Capturing them on paper (or reciting them into a recording device) can provide relief when anxiety makes a visit at night. At any rate, you are better able to solve problems in the light of day with that newfound list for reference.

Practice bedtime rituals. Maybe they were things you were already doing before disaster struck, such as reading, yoga, listening to music, aromatherapy, or a warm bath. Return to these rituals for some sense of grounding and familiarity.

Even just the regular habit of brushing teeth, washing the face, brushing the hair, or moisturizing the hands and feet right before bed can do wonders for relaxing. Personal hygiene during rough times is considered a valiant, but necessary, act of self care.

Be physically active during the day. Exercise and movement during the day is known to help improve sleep onset and the quality of sleep at night. If you are cleaning up or volunteering for a shelter, this may be pretty easy to accomplish!

Make smart eating choices. It can be really hard to eat right during the aftermath. You may be relying on shelter supplies, your own emergency kit, or carry out brought in by others. Make the best of it, and try to eat at times more conducive to sleep at night (at least 2 hours before bedtime) and wakefulness during the day (breakfast, first thing in the morning).

Also, stay hydrated. Stress and post-disaster climate and conditions (heat, humidity, wind) can zap us of fluids. Dehydration leads to daytime fatigue. A glass of water at bedtime (the colder the better) can also help with sleep onset.

Practice good personal hygiene. Bathing is great for overall morale but also helps clear sinuses for those with allergies so they can breathe better during sleep. Staying clean and dry also protects against bacteria, fungus, and other unfortunate invaders (head lice, anybody?), which can lead to illness and discomfort later, which can also disrupt sleep.

Wear clothing with a mind for self protection, and please don’t enter floodwaters, recently burned areas, or rubble from quakes or tornadoes. There are too many opportunities for injuries and illness when you’re stuck in the aftermath of a disaster; but these, too, can definitely impose on your sleep and well being.

Be safe about alternative fuel. Power outages mean people are using generators, candles, and other energy sources. Be sure to extinguish any open burning materials before bedtime and practice precautions with generators to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.

Treat your pain. This is not a prescription for drug abuse, but common sense advice.

  • If you have chronic pain from a preexisting condition, continue to treat it as you have in the past (if you can).
  • If you have newfound pain from an injury or illness, seek appropriate treatment and care until you are healed.

Pain is a huge obstacle to sleep; people who can’t sleep at night because of it refer to it, appropriately, as painsomnia. Being a natural disaster victim is painful enough; don’t skip pain management unless you simply can’t access your therapy.

If you are out of medication or medical equipment used to manage pain, go to a local clinic or shelter and ask for help.

Stay connected. Use your wind-up storm radio, a neighborhood communications chain, local shortwave radio channels, your cell phone, or the Internet (when available) to stay on top of pertinent local news about boil orders, business openings, garbage collection, curfew notices, traffic reports, welfare checks, cancellations and closures of government events and meetings, shelter openings or closures, and power restorations.

(Keep your inquiries and interests local, however. Too much news can breed anxiety. Stick to practical information relevant to your immediate needs.)

The more you know, the more informed decisions you can make during the day, and you may find you sleep better knowing people are doing everything they can to help you survive.

Seek out help if you are feeling emotionally overwhelmed. Some people work in crisis mode better than others. It’s okay to admit you aren’t mentally up for the challenge of disaster survival!

Stress, anxiety, and other depression-like symptoms are common reactions after a disaster. They can lead to disrupted sleep, which then aggravates the stress, anxiety, depression, and trauma you may be experiencing.

From the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): “Severe weather can affect mental health before, during, and after the event. The toll and trauma that stems from disasters can contribute to stress and anxiety, acute stress reaction, and ability to self-regulate—and for some, post-traumatic stress disorder.”

The toll-free Disaster Distress Helpline is a 24-hour national hotline dedicated to providing immediate crisis counseling for those experiencing emotional distress related to natural disaster. This crisis support service is multilingual and confidential and available to all residents in the United States and its territories. You can connect with a trained crisis counselor by calling 1.800.985.5990 or texting TalkWithUs to 66746.
Other health insurers with crisis and counseling hotlines for those affected by the hurricanes include UnitedHealthcare , Aetna and Humana .
Finally, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network ( has published some helpful tips for parents, teachers and families coping with the emotional effects of natural disasters on our youngest citizens.


Once you have your own house in order (or in some semblance of order), consider how you can help others in your immediate surroundings. Not only will you sleep better for being a good neighbor, but they will sleep better knowing they have someone looking out for them.

Seek out people you know in your neighborhood who may need extra help. This can include the elderly, the disabled, children, and anyone who is impaired emotionally or mentally. If you know they have special needs, it is better for you to respond to them with support and kindness than for a perfect stranger… who may or may not have proper intentions.

Assist first responders in any way you can. First responders include local community shelter volunteers, firefighters and police officers, power company technicians, national guard troops, emergency medical professionals, the Red Cross, FEMA volunteers, and other organized efforts. These people seem superhuman, but they still need their sleep!

Assisting them doesn’t mean doing their jobs; more likely it means staying out of their way. But it can mean bringing them water and food, offering them dry clothes and towels, giving them a place to nap during the day, sharing some of your CPAP supplies with them, or volunteering to run errands. Even delivering messages between them and their loved ones can be one way to help them all sleep better at night. If they sleep better at night, they can do more during the day. Everybody wins.

Donate what you can. Sharing what you can spare makes all the difference. If you have extra blankets, pillows, PAP therapy supplies, or other items that can help others sleep better, put them to use out in your community.

Donating money to local charities or giving your time and energy to volunteer work is also valuable. This can even include “soft” work like babysitting or watching pets or sitting with seniors so that they aren’t alone. Blood donations are valuable at this time as well.

You may find you arein a better position to help than others. If so, consider how volunteers could make the difference for you, should you be in the worst possible position (injured, homeless, etc.). The golden rule is still golden for a reason!