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Mental States in a Crisis

A woman sitting on a pier with her head downToday we continue our series highlighting Crisis + Emergency Risk Communication’s (CERC) Psychology of a Crisis resource.  Please be sure to check out our first article based on this resource, 4 Ways People Process Information During a Crisis.

Below is a simplified version of 5 typical mental states that occur during a crisis.  More thorough explanations and tips for how to address each mental state can be found in the full resource linked above.

Uncertainty 

Unfortunately, there are more questions than answers during a crisis, especially in the beginning. At that time, the full magnitude of the crisis, the cause of the disaster, and the actions that people can take to protect themselves may be unclear. This uncertainty will challenge even the greatest communicator. To reduce their anxiety, people seek out information to determine their options and confirm or refute their beliefs. 

Fear, Anxiety, and Dread

In a crisis, people in your community may feel fear, anxiety, confusion, and intense dread. As communicators, our job is not to make these feelings go away. Instead, you could acknowledge them in a statement of empathy. You can use a statement like, “we’ve never faced anything like this before in our community and it can be frightening.” Fear is an important psychological consideration in the response to a threat. Bear in mind the following aspects of fear:

  • In some cases, a perceived threat can motivate and help people take desired actions.
  • In other cases, fear of the unknown or fear of uncertainty may be the most debilitating of the psychological responses to disasters and prevent people from taking action.
  • When people are afraid, and do not have adequate information, they may react in inappropriate ways to avoid the threat. Communicators can help by portraying an accurate assessment of the level of danger and providing action messages so that affected people do not feel helpless. 

Hopelessness and Helplessness

Avoiding hopelessness and helplessness is a vital communication objective during a crisis. Hopelessness is the feeling that nothing can be done by anyone to make the situation better. People may accept that a threat is real, but that threat may loom so large that they feel the situation is hopeless. Helplessness is the feeling that people have that they, themselves, have no power to improve their situation or protect themselves. If a person feels helpless to protect him- or herself, he or she may withdraw mentally or physically. According to psychological research, if community members let their feelings of fear, anxiety, confusion, and dread grow unchecked during a crisis, they will most likely begin to feel hopeless or helpless.

Denial

Denial refers to the act of refusing to acknowledge either imminent harm or harm that has already occurred. Denial occurs for a variety of reasons:

  • People may not have received enough information to recognize the threat.  
  • They may assume the situation is not as bad as it really is because they have not heard the most recent warnings, didn’t understand what they were told, or only heard part of a message. 
  • They may have received messages about a threat but not received action messages on how people should respond to the threat. 
  • They may receive and understand the message, but behave as if the danger is not as great as they are being told. For example, people may get tired of evacuating for threats that prove harmless, which can cause people to deny the seriousness of future threats.

Panic 

During an emergency, people absorb and act on information differently from non-emergency situations. This is due, in part, to the fight-or-flight mechanism. The natural drive to take some action in response to a threat is sometimes described as the fight-or flight response. Emergencies create threats to our health and safety that can create severe anxiety, stress, and the need to do something. One response is to flee the threat. If fleeing is not an option or is exhausted as a strategy, a fight response is activated. You cannot predict whether someone will choose fight-or-flight in a given situation. These rational reactions to a crisis, particularly when at the extreme ends of fight-or-flight, are often described erroneously as “panic” by the media. Response officials may be concerned that people will collectively “panic” by disregarding official instructions and creating chaos, particularly in public places. This is also unlikely to occur. 

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