Psychological Effects of Emergencies

The psychological effects of emergencies vary from person to person and situation to situation. It is hard to predict how people will react but generally speaking an emergency is divided into six distinct stages that will each have their own set of emotional levels. This article is meant to be an overview of what you might expect from yourself, a colleague or those directly affected by an emergency. Understand that no one will behave normally after an emergency, and this may include you.

The people affected by emergencies are divided into three groups:

  1. Primary victims or survivors- the individuals who have been directly impacted by the resulting damage and loss.
  2. Emergency responders- firefighters, paramedics, police, Red Cross, and other local emergency services. We are speaking specifically of the responders inside the disaster area not those coming in from the outside.
  3. Vicarious observers- friends, relatives, and others who get involved vicariously because they know someone or they see the tragedy on TV or hear about it on the radio. This group can be quite large.

It is important to understand how members of these three groups will react to an emergency scenario, while recognizing that the stages discussed are not permanent mental disorders but a natural human reaction to the events in front of them.

There are six stages associated with an emergency or disastrous event. These stages can last a few hours or a few days depending on the size and scope of the emergency.

  1. The Warning Stage -Many natural disasters can be predicted. Some volcanic eruptions, severe snow or ice storms, and floods are called months in advance. Sometimes, however, the warning stage is a more imminent with the clouds darkening and the winds increasing. Taking action helps, as getting prepared or obtaining some form of emergency training releases the panic syndrome and gives people something to do to feel in control.
  2. The Impact Stage -When the storm hits, the earth starts shaking, the fire starts—that is the beginning of the impact stage.
  3. The Action Stage -During this stage, emotion is almost non-existent as anxiety and emotions are suppressed and are expelled into action for what’s known as the “go mode”.
  4. The Honeymoon Stage– During this stage people feel like progress is being made toward recovery after the event, and everyone has renewed love for first responders. Media outlets like covering this type of story demonstrating how the community pulls together and helps each other.
  5. The Inventory Stage -This is where reality starts to sink in and people realize what they have encountered, and examine their losses:
    • Loss of a friend or colleague
    • Major financial loss or loss of job
    • Collections with emotional attachments are damaged
    • Intangible losses such as loss of control, loss of beliefs, loss of power
    On a personal level, people may experience nightmares, irritability, behavioral problems, and family conflicts. Recognize that people may react differently under pressure.
  6.  The Recovery Stage -The recovery stage is divided into two phases:
    • Phase 1 - physical and financial recovery to get back to where you were before the emergency occurred.
    • Phase 2 - spiritual recovery, which may take longer.

Try to ensure that individuals or agencies are not unfairly scapegoated during this stage.

Being aware of how stressful events unfold and how people generally react is part of being prepared. Ensure that people take care of themselves as well as others by taking breaks, resting, and eating well.

Additional Resources on Psychological Effects of Emergencies

Read the article on which this page was based: “Mental Health During Disaster Situations” by Charles G. Cook, Public Health Advisor, Emergency Services & Disaster Relief Branch, Center for Mental Health Services. 1998 Postprints AIC Conservators in Private Practice.