Making sense of it all

Understanding how the barrage of disaster news shapes our decisions

You never know what the day will bring. I was away from home over Christmas, staying at a friend’s apartment. When I got up in the morning, I discovered my car had been broken into and vandalized. Some days, life hits you with petty crime. And for some people, life holds larger disasters: war, illness, and natural catastrophes abound on the daily news.

Disasters happen all the time and for no reason, so as a safety specialist, I’m curious if there is a common way that people have for responding and coping. Experts say there are typical stages of coping that everyone follows in disasters large or small, and we can see them unfolding in Ukraine.

The threat phase. This is the appraisal of the emerging risk, with actions from denial to planning, adapting, and acting. Depending on willingness of those involved to accurately assess the coming threat, the consequences to each person will vary and will increase. For example, those who left Kyiv early were safer than those who stayed and who are now trying to leave.

The initial impact phase. This is when the disaster unfolds and measures to contain its impact are taken, and there is an emotional outcry. This would be the scenes we’ve seen of local volunteers of all ages learning how to hold a weapon and joining the army.

The honeymoon phase. This is characterized by feelings of relief and connection that are marked by spontaneous acts of solidarity and connectedness. These are things such as women making firebombs, grandmothers making camouflage nets, successful defence by the army, and a great deal of flag waving.

The disillusion phase. In this phase reactions may also vary between populations. People become increasingly tired of chaos and fear and the spotlight on the disaster progressively fades out. In this phase there is a risk of splintering society between groups that are affected differently, creating the potential for a second disaster.

I don’t think that the disillusion phase will happen any time soon in Ukraine, although the experts I read had a lot to say about that aspect of COVID-19, which they call a “polarizing disaster” — one that doesn’t affect everyone equally.

Life has thrown a lot at us in the last couple years, and the hits keep coming. Understanding how the news of disaster affects you is the key to coping and moving forward rationally.

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