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Phases of Emotion in Times of Crisis

Coping with COVID19

Melinda Macht-Greenberg, PhD


Although we are in the midst of dealing with a novel virus that is a public health emergency, some aspects of managing the situation are not new to many of us in the field of psychology. Those of us who have been practicing for decades are very familiar with helping people manage and cope with difficult and challenging circumstances. Because of this experience, we can help people deal with their anxieties. Even more, we can help people anticipate what emotional phases will take place in the coming weeks. 


Predictability increases a sense of control and comfort while uncertainty leads to increased anxiety. By anticipating the emotional phases, we can help people ease the feelings of anger and despair.


The following is a list of phases that are likely to transpire for most people. The list is not a fixed or rigid set of steps and some people may experience one or more of the phases to a greater or lesser degree. We are all individuals and may process these phases differently depending on our circumstances and support system. But the list of phases is a guide that may help some people as we deal with these challenging times.


Phase 1- Disbelief 

Is this really happening? What am I supposed to do to protect myself and my loved ones? And for parents, the fear of protecting children is compounded by the realization that we would also become “teachers” for the foreseeable future. Many people were asking themselves “can this really be happening and what does it mean”?


Phase 2- Adaptation

This phase is the process of beginning to get used to the idea that we are in a terrible situation and we begin to set up our family and work systems to adapt to our changing times. In this phase, it is helpful to set up new routines, establish ways we are going to connect with people outside of our home, and to find anchors of normalcy.


Children, in particular, will do best when the new routines become familiar. To accomplish this most easily, it helps to establish the new routines using many aspects of the older, familiar routines. These can include a regular bedtime and wake up time, a schedule of educational and recreational activities, and predictable meal times to name a few. For children, these familiar daily activities will be their anchors of normalcy and will help to ease the anxiety that we all feel with so many changes.


Phase 3- Acceptance

This phase will occur when we realize that the changes we are making will be in place for a while. When we see that we are able to manage and that our children and loved ones are safe, we will settle into our new realities. There may still be a sense of trepidation and anxiety, but more and more parts of the day will feel like a new normal.


Phase 4- Acclimation 

We will know that we are fully acclimated to our new circumstances when we wake up one day and go through our daily lives without feeling the dread and anxiety of uncertainty. Our daily life will feel more expected and predictable.


Phase 5- Sadness, despair or the trauma of loss

It is our greatest hope that none of us will have to experience this phase. However, if the virus touches us, our family, or our close community, there will be feelings of sadness related to coping with the illness or loss of someone we love. Managing this phase will take tremendous support from friends, families, and the professional community.


Phase 6- Recovery

At some point, this crisis will be over. Although experts warn that there may be a period of improvement and then a return of concern, eventually this will be over. During this phase, as a society, we will be in recovery mode as we attempt to understand what we have been through and the impact it had in our lives.


Phase 7- Re-acclimation

As we return to our former lives, we will realize that we are forever changed. Some of those changes will be improvements in how we live and manage our lives. For some of us, there will be scars and we will need help to regain our previous sense of comfort and ease. Who among us will look at a roll of toilet paper the same way again?


Phase 8- Putting the pieces back together

It will take a while to deal with the financial, economic, emotional, health, and social occurrences we have faced. Many will have to find new jobs or recoup income. We will all have faced significant life disruption. It will take a while to put the pieces of our lives back together.


Phase 9- Return to “normal”

At some point, we will wake up one morning without immediately thinking about the crisis. Kids will go to camp or school or play with friends outside. We won’t wash our hands a thousand times a day and worry every time we hear someone cough. At some point, we will realize that life has returned to normal and we will feel grateful that we came through intact. For many, there will be sadness at missing those lost and our communities will need to rally and support people in need. But for most, in time, the anxiety and fear will fade and we will feel ok again.


As we go through these phases, many will benefit from professional guidance. I said at the outset, as a professional, we have experience helping people through challenging times. You do not need to go through this alone. Everyone is anxious and going through the same phases and there are people available to help or answer questions big and small. 


Lastly, I just want to reiterate that there is no fixed timeline and not everyone will experience these phases to the same degree. But to the extent that the list of phases provides a guideline of what to anticipate in the coming weeks or months, it may be of comfort to remember that it is a process and feeling anxious is to be expected. With support and connections from people we know and helping professionals, we will go through this emotional journey together.



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