The Universal Stages of Disaster, And Where We Are Now

Several weeks ago, I was catching up with a colleague, the dedicated Kate Siegrist, B.S., M.Sc, Chief Nursing Officer of the Nurse-Family Partnership in Denver, Colorado. We were discussing changes to a streaming page we built for NFP to help relieve stress for the hundreds of nurses who do life changing work in inner cities all over the US. (They have many super powers, but still can use some winding-down skills at the end of the day.)

Kate mentioned a terrific graph she had seen in a presentation, one that maps out the phases of, really, any disaster, but works especially well for this pandemic.

Check it out — it’s really useful for perspective.

Adapted from Zunin & Myers as cited in DeWolfe, D. J., 2000. Training manual for mental health and human service workers in major disasters (2nd ed., HHS Publication No. ADM 90-538). Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services.

The impact stage this model describes would seem to indicate the time when the most active shelter-in-place/stay-at-home/quarantine orders were in effect. For that short time, at least, it seemed like most of us were willing to work together for a common cause, limiting or suspending our vacations, errands, and other travel-related business. Small steps, but ones that, combined, led to a feeling of heroism toward our fellow humans, and the honeymoon period of feeling specifically tied to and in harmony with our immediate communities.

But here we are in September, with cases of COVID-19 still on the rise, overworked healthcare personnel swamped with responsibilities, parents dealing with kids and grandkids going back to school, unemployment assistance that’s often too little, too late or nowhere to be found… that’s the inventory. And every new report of further distress and outrage over our circumstances is another kick in the keister, catalyzing new periods of emotional distress, anxiety, fear, and depression — periods that hit even harder than the initial disaster response. On the graph, it looks like we’re heading into the trough of disillusionment — the low point of the whole trajectory. But as you can see from the chart, it ain’t over til it’s over, and at some point, a reverse trend is ahead.

Our recovery and reconstruction may hit some bumps along the way, but the general trend is bound for onward and upward. This measure of human response to disasters is time-tested; there will be acceptance, coming to terms with the losses and finally, rebuilding  — because that’s what we do. “The only way out is through,” and yes, the Phoenix rises from the ashes.

And as with most other things, mental health is a marathon and not a sprint. The little things that keep us going do add up, over time. Whether that’s keeping our routine of a favorite brew of tea in the morning, a bike ride through the park, a meditation at night to help us sleep, or rereading a favorite book, our capacity for fatigue may be getting the workout of its life, but our endurance and resilience are the keys to staying in the fight. The small steps we took to foster that community spirit early on? The same principle applies to each of us as individuals.

This also may be a great time to get back the basics of guided imagery — when in doubt, keep it simple. If you’re having trouble sleeping at night, go back to our ever-popular Guided Meditation for Healthful Sleep, or give yourself a dose of love and kindness with Traci Stein’s Self-Compassion Meditations During Sleep or Guided Self-Hypnosis to Foster Self-Esteem During Sleep.

And, of course, take the steps you need to take to address the fog hanging over us all, whenever the day or night calls for them. Guided Meditations to Help with Anxiety & Panic, Depression, and Stress are all solid choices to address whatever you’re feeling these days.

And just some encouragement from me to you — don’t let the coronavirus grind you down. (But forgive yourself and carry on if it does!!)