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The Crisis Curve: Where do you land?

It is the middle of April 2020 and our country is in crisis.

There is no doubt that the Corona-virus is an emotionally significant event and it has radically changed our lives. The virus is an invisible threat to public safety that has caused financial loss, chaos, confusion, stress, death, emotional trauma and instability in our society.

We are in a very critical time.

Many people find it emotionally difficult to think about crisis and plan for it, but the reality is that crisis is a part of life and will ultimately have an impact on individuals, families, relationships, communities, and businesses. Crises may be developmental over time such as addiction, disease, or employee misconduct. Or, they may be situational and sudden, such as a cybersecurity threat, earthquake, hurricane, car accident, or food safety outbreak.

Every crisis is painful.

But there is hope because every crisis, whether it be a family crisis, a business crisis or a widespread community crisis, has a pattern.

Every crisis has a beginning, a middle and an END.

Understanding the “crisis curve” may be one way to cope with trauma. Recognizing the various stages of crisis and the possible emotional responses may help people be more empathetic to their family, peers, leaders, and experts during a difficult time.

The Crisis Curve: Five stages of crisis and eleven emotional responses

Warning Stage

This is the pre-crisis period where the problem begins. For developmental crises, this may be when someone recognizes there is an issue and may try to bring attention to it. The issue may be kept quiet, or swept under the rug. The problem is not typically known to the mass public and not visible in the media. The main emotional phases during this stage are denial and uncertainty.

  • Denial: This is when people refuse to acknowledge either imminent harm or harm that has already occurred. For most people, they have not received enough information to recognize the threat, they have received mixed messages, or they can’t decipher rumors. They assume the situation is not as bad as it really is because they don’t understand it, or they don’t have the full picture. People may think “the problem is not that bad”, or “it won’t happen here”, or “this would never happen in my company or family.” People may view an issue as a problem for someone else to solve.

Build-Up Stage

This stage of a crisis is when the issue gains some traction, there is an immediate assessment of risk and the crisis becomes more visible to the general public. For large scale crises, media interest is intense and constant during this stage. From a leadership perspective, by this point, a leader recognizes that they have no choice but to address the issue. At this point, it is too late to take extreme preventative action so the action shifts to damage control.

  • Uncertainty: This is when people have questions about the full magnitude of the potential crisis, the cause of it, and the actions people can take to protect themselves might be unclear. People will seek information to determine their personal options for coping or not coping.

  • Shock: People begin to experience a surge of strong emotions and a physical reaction to the fear of the unknown. The degree of reactions will vary from person to person. It is natural to take some sort of action in response to a threat, which is essentially the fight or flight response. Adrenaline, a primary stress hormone, is activated which can increase heart rate, narrow blood vessels, expand air passages. These physical responses give people more physical capacity to respond.

  • Fear/Panic: Human beings typically don’t react well to scary things and are left feeling like they can’t control their destiny. Panic sets in, but in the moment people usually do not view themselves as panicking because they have their own rationale behind their actions.

Response Stage

This is when people start to accept the truth or existence of the trauma or crisis. This stage involves a wide range of emotional reactions but leans toward optimism, self-preservation, and family protection. People tend to draw together to solve problems in an intense showing of community. This stage is very action-oriented and the media typically focuses on a play by play of the crisis events.

  • Heroism: This phase usually occurs right as the crisis peaks or immediately after. This emotional phase has lots of activity, but low productivity. This is when the adrenaline spikes and the response begins to feel more like a rescue. Assessing the risk level might be clouded and the media is usually heavily present during this time.

  • Honeymoon: There is a general shift in emotion. As assistance becomes available, family or community bonding occurs. There is a big sense of optimism that things will return to normal. Organizations start to collaborate and build rapport with the community or families.

Impact Stage

This stage of a crisis involves a lot of processing and is typically the longest and most exhausting stage. It is the most painful stage of a crisis because there is a lot of assigning blame, judgment of others, self-defense, claiming credit, hopelessness, disillusionment, and skepticism. In large crises, the media explodes, investigations are launched, and litigation occurs. All of this is happening while people are continuing to process emotional responses from the build-up and response stages.

  • Disillusionment: At this phase of a crisis, optimism turns to discouragement. Some people might feel abandoned. There may be an increased demand for services and people start to realize the limits of crisis assistance. Some people might get into a mentality of “everyone for himself” because they have a sense of privilege and a need to be in control. The stress of this phase takes its toll, and there is a higher incidence of negative reactions, physical exhaustion, and possibly even substance abuse.

  • Hopelessness & Helplessness: This phase is when people start to feel that nothing can be done by anyone to make the situation better. People may accept that the threat or problem is real, but that the issue may loom so large that they feel the situation is hopeless. People may also start to feel a sense of helplessness and feel that they, themselves, have no power to improve their situation or protect themselves. This is when we start to see people withdraw mentally or physically. Loneliness and depression might peak during this phase.

  • Skepticism: During this phase, people may start thinking about the big picture and start to ask more questions. This is usually a thought-provoking phase and can weigh heavily on people emotionally. Varied opinions among peers and media may generate deep conversations and debates.

  • Blame Game: During this phase families, communities, organizations, and media shift the script from the play by play reporting of the crisis to who’s to blame. There is a lot of pointing the finger and trying to find someone on whom to pin responsibility for the crisis.

Resolution Stage

This stage of a crisis is when there is a sense of relief and elation. Things finally return to normal, solutions are put into action and eventually, the crisis fades from the spotlight. Life will go on, and usually for the better. The media may revisit the crisis at various times but it is usually for reflection.

  • Growth & action: During this phase people start to pull together again to get things done. Weaknesses are evaluated, opportunities for growth and renewal are evaluated, new resources are identified, there is a new understanding of risk and risk management, and solutions are put into action.

  • Hope: During this phase, faith is restored as people commit to making the future better and people experience cultural change.

The takeaway?

Our current large scale crisis with the Corona-virus seems to be following the typical crisis curve. I think for the general public we are still in the response stage, but we are dipping our toes in the impact phase.

It is important to recognize that while there may be a general trend in which stage or emotional phase a community is currently in, not every individual is at the same point emotionally on the curve. For example, some first responders and people on the front lines may be living every day in the fight or flight response stage. Someone who has lost a loved one to the virus might be in the build-up stage of shock, fear, and panic. A person who is not experiencing financial hardship or virus health challenges may be ahead of the curve and already entering the impact phase. Leadership and experts may already be thinking ahead to the resolution phase.

We must respect each person's journey during any crisis because crisis is painful.

But every crisis has a beginning, a middle and an


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