We’ve been hearing a lot about phases recently as Washington State rolls out its approach for reopening businesses and physical distancing measures. With Skagit County now officially in Phase 2 of the Governor’s Safe Start plan, it is exciting—and relieving—to begin seeing things get back to somewhat “normal.” At this time, it is important to be thinking about some other phases: specifically, the phases of recovery that we may be experiencing in regards to our mental and emotional health.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provides a thought-provoking graph titled, “Phases of Disaster,” which tracks a typical community’s response to a disaster. A large-scale disaster can take many forms, such as natural disasters (hurricanes or tornados) or human caused (acts of violence or terrorism). And though it may not seem like it when we are hunkered down in our living rooms, we are currently in the midst of a very different type of crisis.
“Phases of Disaster” Adapted from Zunin & Myers as cited in DeWolfe, D. J., 2000. Training manual for mental health and human service workers in major disasters
According to the graph, it is normal (and even expected) that an individual or community may feel the effects of a disaster for quite some time—a year or more in some cases. There are six phases of recovery written into this model. This is how the phases are defined:
Phase 1: Pre-Disaster
This is the period of time before a disaster takes place and is “characterized by fear and uncertainty.” In the case of COVID-19 and Washington State, this would have been prior to the State’s first confirmed case back in March, when we were reading news about the spread in other countries.
Phase 2: Impact
This is when the disaster takes place and is “characterized by a range of intense emotional reactions … [and] can range from shock to overt panic.” For many, this phase of the pandemic began when the state reported its first positive case or when schools and businesses began to shut down in late March. We can all recall feeling unnerved during this time as we began to see our daily routines changed suddenly.
Phase 3: Heroic
People come together during disasters. Skagit County witnessed so many amazing acts of heroism, from health care staff and first responders on the front lines, to people volunteering as Meals on Wheels drivers, to large amounts of donations to non-profits helping those in greatest need. And we continue to hear new stories of compassion. While it comes as no surprise that our County would step up to a challenge, it is also amazing to see how these selfless actions are tracked on this graph.
Phase 4: Honeymoon
The opening of our drive-thru testing site in mid-April is a perfect example of the Honeymoon Phase, when disaster assistance becomes readily available. This time is “characterized by a dramatic shift in emotion,” when “community bonding occurs.” It is also when optimism peaks and people believe everything will return to normal quickly.
Phase 5: Disillusionment
For some, it may feel like we are in this phase now. This is when “optimism turns to discouragement and stress continues to take a toll.” It might also be a time when “negative reactions, such as physical exhaustion or substance use, may begin to surface.” Constant media bombardment, reporting an increase of new cases after a few days of low numbers, and other triggering events in the news can all greatly impact our ability to recover. This phase can last for months, and it is normal to experience periods of emotional highs and lows throughout. If you are feeling disillusioned, please know that this is a very human reaction, and that there is help available.
Phase 6: Reconstruction
Reconstruction is possible when “individuals and communities begin to assume responsibility for rebuilding their lives, and people adjust to a new normal.” Even still, it is typical to grieve over losses during this phase. While our County is well on its way toward Reconstruction, it is important to give ourselves some grace as we continue on our collective road toward recovery.
SAMHSA lists the following suggestions for coping with a disaster:
1. Talk with others who understand and accept how you feel. Reach out to a trusted friend, family member, or faith-based leader to explore what meaning the event may have for you.
2. Body movement helps to get rid of the buildup of extra stress hormones. Exercise once daily or in smaller amounts throughout the day.
3. Take deep breaths. Most people can benefit from taking several deep breaths often throughout the day. Deep breathing can move stress out of your body and help you to calm yourself. It can even help stop a panic attack.
4. Listen to music. Music is a way to help your body relax naturally. Play music timed to the breath or to your heartbeat. Create a relaxing playlist for yourself and listen to it often.
5. Pay attention to your physical self. Make sure to get enough sleep and rest each day. Eat healthy meals and snacks and make sure to drink plenty of water. Avoid caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol – especially in large amounts. Their effects are multiplied under stress and can be harmful, just making things worse.
6. Use known coping skills. How did you handle past traumatic events like a car crash or the death of a loved one? What helped then (such as more time with family, going to a support group meeting)? Try using those coping skills now.
The impact on our collective, and individual, mental and emotional health cannot be understated or ignored at this time. For some people, recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic will be quick and relatively painless. For others, recovery may need to take place on several levels: emotional, social, economic, and even physical. And while we all must deal with the impacts of the pandemic on our own terms, we must also carry the impact as a community, and learn to rebuild, readjust, and move forward with patience and understanding.
If you are feeling stressed or anxious, depressed or lonely, please know that these are all common reactions to a crisis. The Disaster Distress Helpline is dedicated to providing immediate crisis counseling for people who are experiencing emotional distress related to any natural or human-caused disaster. This service is toll-free, multilingual and confidential. Call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746 to connect with a trained crisis counselor. For more resources click here.
So remember, wherever you may be at on your road to recovery, please know that your feelings are valid—and even backed by science!