The Phases of Disaster

COVID-19 affects every aspect of our lives.

Do you get halfway through a page and forget what you’ve read? Have you fired off a quick remark to an e-mail before thinking through your response? Do you have headaches, stomachaches, or trouble sleeping?

These are all common responses to a disaster. You may think it’s just you, but studies show that these are normal reactions to an abnormal situation.


Understanding the Phases of Disaster

During a disaster, our brains are constantly on the lookout for the next threat, and this causes our brain to continually release cortisol—a key stress hormone. Over time, the constant stress makes people tired, and they can’t control their emotions as effectively.

Dr. Mauseth says even those who don’t usually feel depression or anxiety will struggle during a disaster like COVID-19. They may have a difficult time focusing or remembering details, or they may have a shorter temper and be more likely to show anger and frustration toward others. That is why she recommends learning skills to help identify and control our emotions. She calls these skills COPE, CALM, and CARE.

Wouldn’t it be nice at times if we could pause or stop things happening around us just long enough to take a big, deep breath?

The graph above illustrates the phases in response to natural disasters. Researchers have shown that COVID-19 follows this same pattern.

The COVID-19 Phases of Disaster:


Characterized by fear and uncertainty.
February – March 2020

Reports of COVID-19 began to circulate, but people weren’t sure when or if it would reach our communities or how dangerous it would be. This uncertainty led to feelings of fear and anxiety.



Characterized by a range of intense emotional reactions.
March 2020

The impact of COVID-19 became a reality and people began to feel shock and panic. To protect themselves and their families many began hoarding supplies like flour and toilet paper.



Characterized by a high level of activity with a low level of productivity.
March – April 2020

States began purchasing respirators and equipment—in some cases, causing bidding wars that sent prices skyrocketing.



Characterized by a dramatic shift in emotion.
April – May 2020

People started baking sourdough bread and cleaning out closets determined to make the best of the situation. Disaster assistance and supplies became readily available.



Characterized by a drastic shift in optimism. Discouragement and stress take a toll.
September 2020 - Today

As the pandemic wore on, people began to tire of restrictions. They missed seeing family and friends. They became overwhelmed by the virus and their thoughts, actions, and behaviors began to decline.



Characterized by an overall feeling of recovery.
Any day now

Individuals and communities begin to assume responsibility for rebuilding their lives and people adjust to a new “normal” while continuing to grieve losses. Now that the vaccine is available, we anticipate the recovery phase is right around the corner!


What you’re feeling is normal.

Currently, we are in the disillusionment phase of COVID-19.

There are MANY well-known and VERY COMMON experiences that happen for most people during the Disillusionment Phase of disaster response and recovery.