Recovering from Disasters: Common Phases and Experiences

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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!


Dear Class of 2020

Dear Class of 2020

Reading Time: 4 minutes Reading Time: 4 minutes

One Skagit High School Student’s Perspective on COVID-19

By guest author, Brylee Axelson-Ney — Burlington-Edison High School Senior

No one expects their senior year to go like this. Everyone looks forward to their senior year homecoming, football games, pep assemblies, final athletic moments, senior skip day, senior pranks, senior prom, and of course graduation. No one anticipated an uncertain amount of time off from school with everything canceled and not knowing whether or not they’re going to graduate. Seniors won’t be able to properly say goodbye to a place where they’ve spent some of the most memorable years of their life.

It was the end of the day during 8th period. Suddenly, a message came over the loudspeaker. School was to be canceled until April 27th. At first people were happy and cheering for our extended spring break. But after a few minutes of contemplation, we all quickly realized that we didn’t want this six week “vacation”. We wanted to spend all the time we could together before we went our separate ways forever. My best friend decided we should walk around the school blasting sad music on her speaker. It would make people feel better. We did just that. People were coming out of their classrooms recording, laughing or just staring at us. Which was fine, we were used to it. Our senior year basically consisted of us always being together and making fools out of ourselves wherever we go. Over the summer, we even organized our schedules so we would have seven out of our eight classes together. We have spent four years being crazy together on the same basketball and track team. Or I guess three years on the same track team since the season was cancelled.

Well, we had a couple weeks of practice before we were limited to only practicing Monday through Wednesday. Then with the school closure, all practices were cancelled until April 27th. Then finally no practice at all. No competitions at all. No track at all. Track is probably my favorite sport. I have competed in and won almost every meet in the high jump since sophomore year. I was ready to jump this year. I was ready to win the district championships and compete at state for the third year in a row. I was ready to use this season to build up my stats to compete in college. But most importantly, I was ready to use this track season to say my final goodbyes to my friends. After basketball season was over, I wasn’t too upset because I thought at least we have one last track season together! Now I don’t have that season with my high jump buddy or with the tall girl track squad (which is what we liked to call ourselves) or with my best friend.

This year I was also elected to be senior class president. I’m going to be honest that being class president didn’t have many responsibilities. All I had to do was attend Associated Student Body (ASB) meetings, plan class future reunions, and plan baccalaureate. With the school year being shortened and no graduation as far as we know, one of my three responsibilities is cut off. I know baccalaureate is very important to a large percentage of the senior class. It is unfortunate we won’t have the opportunity to attend the event although it is kind of nice for me because I no longer have to stress about planning it. As far as graduation goes, there’s no sense of relief. Everyone I know was so excited for graduation. At graduation we finally would be honored for everything we have done in our high school careers, just like every class before us has. All the years we have sat in the stands watching our siblings and friends walk across that stage and thinking to ourselves, “oh my gosh I can’t believe that’s gonna be me in a few years”. The valedictorians who have spent all of high school maintaining perfect marks and staying involved in the school so they could be recognized at graduation. The parents who use this time to say goodbye to their babies’ and say hello to the new adults they’ve become.

I don’t want to sound like I’m ungrateful for my high school experience by any means. I loved high school. I am so grateful to have met so many amazing people and to have had so much fun during the last four years. I learned so much about who I am and who I want to become in the future. I understand the necessity of social distancing. I am very fortunate to have my health and my family during these crazy times.

So, to the class of 2020: I know this is hard and may seem unfair at times. However, I don’t think we should look at this as a time of sadness and pity but rather a time of change and evolution for years to come. We can set an example for future classes on how to deal with adversity.

COVID-19 & the Class of 2020.

Brylee is a graduating senior at Burlington-Edison High School. She will start at the University of Washington in the fall where she plans to study Environmental Science and Terrestrial Resource Management.