Understanding Your 6 Stages of Response to the Coronavirus

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You may have been hearing more about anticipatory grief lately. And, yes, for some individuals feelings of grief and loss have been profound during the coronavirus pandemic. But for many, however, assigning one feeling is simply not enough to explain the complex and multifaceted set of emotions associated with living through a pandemic. In other words, that discomfort you’re feeling? It’s complicated and it probably isn’t easily conceptualized by one emotion. 

6 Stages of Response to a Disaster

To understand what you’re feeling, it might be helpful to consider where you are in your response to the current pandemic situation. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration provides a six-stage model to help explain how individuals might respond to a disaster situation. 

Phase 1: pre-disaster

In this first phase, individuals may experience a sense of fear and worry. There is generally a sense of uncertainty about what may happen next. Individuals in this first phase may feel like they are struggling to keep their footing on solid ground. It’s common to experience feelings of panic and an increase in the activation of the flight or fight response to the situation.  

Phase 2: impact

In the second phase, individuals tend to transition into survival mode. After the initial shock of the disaster has occurred, there may be a transition to focusing on tangible tasks, like obtaining food, water, and a place to stay. Individuals in this phase tend to focus on trying to adapt to the disaster situation and there may be a tendency to avoid focusing on feelings in this moment. 

Phase 3: heroic

In the Heroic phase, individuals may begin to focus on coming together, helping their community, or they may attempt to focus on assisting others who have been more acutely impacted by the disaster. In this phase, it is not uncommon for individuals to neglect some of their own emotional needs, and instead focus on the needs of others in their life.  

Phase 4: the honeymoon phrase

During this phase, individuals may experience a sense of optimism and hope. Typically, the initial threat of the disaster has passed and assistance appears to be available. Individuals may begin to consider how they will move forward and they may have optimism about the future. Individuals tend to experience hope in this phase and they tend to feel encouraged about how they might move past the disaster event. Unfortunately, this phase may not last very long as individuals start to confront the realities of rebuilding after a disaster. 

Phase 5: the disillusionment phrase

The realities of disaster and the potential limitations of disaster assistance may become apparent in this phase. Individuals may begin to feel a growing sense of disillusionment and disconnection. It’s not uncommon for individuals to feel a sense of abandonment as the larger community returns to business as usual. Individuals may feel like the world is moving on without them, they may feel stuck, or they may feel hopeless about their future. 

Phase 6: the reconstruction phrase

In this final phase, individuals begin to focus on rebuilding their lives, while beginning to explore reinstituting a sense of normality in their daily routine. While in this phase of determining their new normal, individuals may continue to experience feelings of grief and loss. 

Moving Forward

At this particular and peculiar moment in time, individuals across the world are likely in different phases of their response to the disaster. This is likely due, in part, to the ways in which they are currently experiencing the disaster. For example, those who are in geographic areas that experienced the virus earlier may be moving to the reconstruction phase; while those in areas that are just now beginning to see the full impact of the virus could be experiencing symptoms more closely related to the impact phase. The combination of feelings experienced will likely be tied to the stage of disaster response an individual finds themselves in. 

And so that feeling you’re experiencing? It could be grief. It could also be anguish, sadness, loss, existential worry, and fear — or a conglomeration of all of those emotions. It’s incredibly complicated and it may change from day-to-day, moment-to-moment, even second-to-second. If it helps to have an encompassing label on your experience, then consider a term that best fits your current experience. For some, that may be grief. For others, it could be exential worry, fear, or anger. For others, after weeks of being on edge, there could be a feeling of numbness and disconnect. And, just as we cycle in and out of the phases above, we also cycle in and out of these emotions. Notice what you’re feeling, give your feeling space, and work to move through the experience in a way that works for you right now — during this very singular moment.

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