The 4-Stage Psychological Response to Disaster

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A disaster is a calamitous event, especially one occurring suddenly and causing great loss of life, damage, or hardship. Can we prevent disasters? No, but we can prepare for them. Emergency disasters deal with survival, which is one of the primary needs of human beings. It includes the need for water, food, rest, clothing, shelter, and health. When preparing for eventual disasters, we can take care of at least four physical needs. These include protection, location, water, and food. Other factors can affect our chance of overcoming an emergency though. Our psychology is one of them.

Abraham Maslow established a difference between deficiency needs and growth needs. Deficiency needs include survival, safety, social, and psychological needs. Growth needs involve fulfilling your full potential as a person (self-actualization). Little harm may come if you don’t meet your growth needs in an emergency. Yet, if you don’t meet your deficiency needs, a lot of unpleasant results arise. Thus, it’s important we mentally train ourselves to respond in case of an emergency.

Colin Towell is the author of The Survival Handbook. He states we go through four different psychological moments in an emergency. These are pre-impact, impact, recoil, and post-trauma. Learning more about these moments can help us prepare and be better equipped. I will briefly describe each of these stages next.

Pre-Impact Period


In this stage, there is danger but some people may not recognize it while others can see it clearly. Those who can’t see danger exists are usually in denial. They refuse to accept the danger until it becomes too obvious to everyone and action is taken.

Impact Period


In this stage, people know there is a life-threatening situation. The majority feels frozen and unable to react rationally. Few people tend to express extreme behaviors (e.g. screaming, melt-downs). A minority usually remains calm and fully aware.

Recoil Period


In this stage, people begin to gradually return to their normal reasoning capacity. This is a period in which people become more aware and in greater control of their emotions.

Post-Trauma Period


This stage occurs when the Recoil Period is not successful. If people don’t get their reasoning and emotions in check, they may develop PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). This condition includes negative experiences such as guilt, depression, anxiety, aimlessness, and bereavement.


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