Be Someone’s Giving Rainbow This Holiday Season

Multiple catastrophes have made donating to charity even more important.

Posted Nov 24, 2020

Catacysmic disasters are part of the human experience, particularly this year. The psychology of environmental stress describes cataclysmic disasters as sudden, unique, and powerful disasters that affect many people. This category of stressors includes natural disasters (like earthquakes and hurricanes) and technological disasters (like damn failures and chemical spills). It also includes pandemics.

In addition to causing injury, death, and destructive economic and environmental impacts, many studies find that disaster survivors show symptoms of acute stress disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder, including depression, phobias, nightmares, and stress-related physical symptoms. While sometimes these mental health effects are short-lived, in other cases, effects linger for years. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has the hallmarks of a significantly stressful cataclysmic event. It’s been lengthy and uncertain and its magnitude great. In the United States alone over 3 million have been unemployed for more than six months due to the pandemic, more than 250,000 have died, and more than 500,000 hospitalized (currently about 87,000 are hospitalized due to the virus). Research using community samples on the mental health effects of the pandemic finds pandemic-related anxiety (in 20-35% of respondents), depression (in 20-30%), binge drinking (in 25%), and severe stress (in 10% to 30%). 

In my last blog post, I wrote about the allostatic load perspective on stress, which suggests that the stress includes a physiological response that over time may damage our bodies. The COVID-19 pandemic has overlapped with other catastrophic stressors like natural disasters and political unrest, making it all that more concerning from an allostatic load perspective. 

People are remarkably resilient. Hope, grit, and persistence mean that most people bounce back after catastrophic disasters. But some people aren’t as resilient.  They are more vulnerable, that is, less able to cope with and recover from the impacts of catastrophic disasters. Preexisting financial, family, and health problems increase vulnerability. People with low incomes are especially vulnerable since they usually lose more and have fewer recovery resources when disaster strikes. 

Disaster-related distress is a function of vulnerability and disaster-related loss, but it’s also a function of the availability of psychological and practical supports. I’ve written before about the value of social support during the pandemic but I should also point out that therapeutic trauma support provided by a mental health professional can prevent an acute stress reaction from becoming the longer-term post-traumatic stress disorder. Here are links for mental health crisis services. Psychology Today also offers a therapist search tool on its homepage (just type in your zip code).

Cataclysmic stressors sometimes bring out the best in people. People usually take quick action to help others and rebuild their communities and this can strengthen community bonds. This, for example, was true of the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks. On the other hand, disasters sometimes split communities when people disagree about the cause, and the solution, and some groups call for action while others minimize or deny the problem. We’ve seen this with the COVID-19 pandemic.  

In my blog on COVID-19 and the importance of social support, I called on readers to be “someone’s social support rainbow.” Here I encourage you to donate money to programs providing practical support to people at greatest risk for losses due to the pandemic (millions are in danger of losing unemployment benefits by the end of the year since Congress hasn’t passed another relief bill). 

Your local food bank or a contribution to Feeding America (a nationwide network of food banks) is a good way to go since 1 in 5 Americans have used a food bank since the pandemic began. The American Red Cross provides aid to people affected by catastrophic disasters but there are others (use Charity Navigator to make sure an organization is legitimate and not a scam). 

Under the CARES Act (the federal pandemic relief program) you can deduct cash donations of up to $300 from your taxable income even if you don’t itemize your taxes. But of course, the real benefit is helping people in need and being someone’s “practical support rainbow.”


Bonanno, G. A., Brewin, C. R., Kaniasty, K., & Greca, A. M. L. (2010). Weighing the costs of disaster: Consequences, risks, and resilience in individuals, families, and communities. Psychological Science In the Public Interest, 11(1), 1-49.

Beaglehole, B., Mulder, R. T., Frampton, C. M., Boden, J. M., Newton-Howes, G., & Bell, C. J. (2018). Psychological distress and psychiatric disorder after natural disasters: systematic review and meta-analysis. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 213(6), 716-722.

Gruber, J. Prinstein, M.J., Clark, L.A., Rottenberg, J., Abramowitz, J.S., Albano, A.M…Weinstock, L.M. (2020). Mental health and clinical psychological science in the time of COVID-19: Challenges, opportunities, and a call to action. American Psychologist.

More Posts