Disaster Psychology

Disaster Psychology Helps to Explain Our Response During Crisis

Lindsay Recknell Hope, Hope Booster, Hope Booster - Science, Mental Health Leave a Comment

Today I’d like to speak about a new science that I was introduced to today called Disaster Psychology.  I received an email from a girlfriend this morning, which was a forward of a newsletter that she received from an author that she and I are both familiar with. The author is Dr. Tasha Ulrich, a Ph.D. in Psychology and her book, called “Insights” is all about self-awareness, self-actualization and evidence-based research on how we behave in certain situations. She’s especially focused right now on the global pandemic and why we are experiencing our emotions and feelings in the way we are and how that’s showing up in our behaviors. In this newsletter, she makes reference to Disaster Psychology, is a real field of study.


There are scientists out there studying the way humanity has responded during times of crisis and this global pandemic is clearly a time of crisis for everyone in the world. We are all responding in different ways across a spectrum of feelings and emotions and thoughts, which is apparently all quite typical for people going through disasters.  I was really encouraged by the science and the evidence-based discussions behind it. I thought we could talk a little bit about that today and the phases of Disaster Psychology that we go through in times of crisis. 

I am especially encouraged by the fact that there are phases because, by their nature, phases indicate that we will get through this crisis.

If we can move from one phase to another, eventually that does mean we will come out the other side of this crisis.

That is hopeful because it means that somewhere down the line, there will be an end to this crisis and we will get through it in our own way and at our own speed and we will get through to the end. 

The importance of the mental health of humanity, of people as we go through crisis, has been recognized as a field of scientific study. Back in the ‘90s, the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, a United Nations-affiliated agency, was established to support the acute psychological health of emergency workers. It was recognized back in the ‘90s that first responders and emergency workers on the front line suffer psychological stress and trauma because of their job in responding to situations like this. Even back in the ‘90s, we recognized the importance of protecting and helping first responders from a psychological point of view. 

The American Red Cross has developed a network of psychological crisis intervention teams that they deploy at the same time as they deploy teams to help from a physical and environmental point of view. They also deploy these psychological teams to help support survivors and first responders on the front lines which I think is very, very cool.

There were also programs developed to support Kuwaiti citizens after the Kuwaiti war. After the war and after all international aid had moved out, the Kuwaiti government put a program in place to help support survivors and those living in Kuwait who had lived through the Kuwaiti war. I love that.

I just love these instances of people recognizing the importance of, and support for, the psychological needs of people left behind. For the people that have lived through times such as these.

All of this is to say that it’s a real thing, we recognize it and there are supports out there to help.

If you haven’t yet recognized the psychological impact on you or if you think that for some reason you are responding in an abnormal way or a weak way, in a way you feel like you shouldn’t be, this is a normal thing. This is how people over the course of history have responded in times of crisis.

Forgive yourself.

There’s a lot of self-forgiveness to be had during this time.

It’s okay. 

There is a lot of research out there. A lot to learn and if you’re searching for it, it’s available.

If you are just wanting to feel it, sit in it and be okay with how it feels, that’s real and relevant and it’s totally okay. Forgive yourself for feeling these things because it is totally normal and you will get through them.

Now let’s talk about what the science says are the phases that you can expect to get through as we go through this crisis. We are through some of these phases of disaster already. Here in Canada, in Alberta and Calgary, we will be at a different phase than other places around the world or even potentially other places within our own country or within North America but these phases are pretty standard throughout a crisis.

There are recognized phases of disaster and depending on where we are, we could still be moving through some of these phases. Disaster psychology has indicated six phases of disaster.

The first one, Pre-disaster, is determined by how much notice we have of a disaster coming. In the case of COVID-19, the Pre-disaster phase in North America was determined by when we were notified of the disease coming out of China. You can determine the length of the Pre-disaster phase on how much notice we had and when we started to do something about it.

The Impact phase comes next. The length of this phase is determined by the scope and scale of the disaster. How long the impact is going to last, how deep the impact is going to be and how many people the disaster is going to impact determines the length of this Impact phase. 

Then we run into the Heroic phase. This is the reactive phase. This is where people jump in to help. We do everything we can. We shut everything down. We try to do everything we can to minimize the impact, to minimize the scope and scale of the disaster and respond as quickly as we possibly can to the crisis. This is that Heroic phase. I feel like in some cases we’re still in this Heroic phase, but in other cases, we have moved through the Heroic phase into the Honeymoon phase.

The Honeymoon phase is that short-lived sense of optimism. I feel like many of our organizations, our cultures, our communities are here in this Honeymoon phase right now. This is where the massive relief efforts are happening. This is where people are doing everything they can to enhance morale. This is the number of online courses and the free options that are out there. This is all of the content providers that are providing resources and tools and joy and happiness and hope.

This is the phase where these Hope Booster videos started 😊

This is that optimistic stage where we are hopeful things will recover and things will return to normal in a short period of time. This Honeymoon phase is where our shock hasn’t worn off. Our adrenaline is still high. We still have a lot of positive optimism for the future that this will end quickly and we can get back to normal soon.

I feel like some of us are still in this Honeymoon phase, but I also feel like some of us have moved to stage five, which is the Disillusionment phase.

This is where we’re coming to grips with this new reality. Normal might not be happening as quickly as we’d like it to. Stagnation has set in and people may be coming a bit lackadaisical and may be feeling like we can’t do this anymore. 

Feeling that the restrictions are too tight. Like we’re going a bit crazy in our environments.

Anger and frustration might be growing. If it’s not set in yet, it might be growing and we can feel like we’re raging against the machine so to speak. I feel like a lot of us might be in this Disillusionment phase right now.

As well I feel like if we’re not here yet, we’re quickly moving into this phase of “when is this going to end?” The shock has now worn off. The stress and anxiety are at a manageable level. We’ve adjusted to that but we’re not quite in the sixth phase yet, which is the Reconstruction phase of disaster psychology.

The Reconstruction phase is when our emergency responses have faded. People are getting back to normal. The shock has worn off and we’re starting to adjust and reconcile to what this new normal looks like. In the Reconstruction phase action really starts to happen.

People figure out what they need to do next.

Grief and anger have been replaced by acceptance and rebuilding starts to happen. This phase can be anywhere from two months to a year depending on how long it takes us to rebuild, to recover.

This is where our natural resilience and ability to jump back up and come to terms with what the new reality can look like for us and start to action some of those things to get back to where we were or get back to feeling comfortable and thriving in society again.

We will get there.

I promise we will get there.

I know in some places in the world we’re starting to see this Reconstruction phase happening. Italy is starting to reopen its economy. Spain, China, places that have been experiencing this crisis much longer than those of us in North America. We are starting to see them enter this Reconstruction phase of Disaster Psychology and that’s a very hopeful place to be.

It’s also reconfirming that we will get there. The beauty of a crisis is that they pass. We get to move through these things and come out on the other side of them.

It might be helpful to figure out where you might be personally, where your family might be in these phases.  Then you can start to get an idea of what phase you will move into next and how quickly you might get there. The end is in sight. We will get there. I promise we will get there and our hope will continue for that positive future.

I hope this has been helpful. Knowledge for me is King and recognizing or learning about this Disaster Psychology was very helpful for me to realize that this is normal behavior,  that this crisis will pass and how we’re feeling right now is okay and is normal behavior for people in times of crisis.

Stay confident.

Stay proud.

Stay hopeful and you will totally get through this. I’m here if you need me.

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