Why psychology matters during a crisis
Understanding how people process crisis events will enable first responders to more effectively communicate with communities
The busy folks in white coats and public health service uniforms at the Centers for Disease Control aren’t just looking for cures and gadgets to fight COVID-19. They also know that mental health can degrade in a crisis and add to the troubles of a pandemic.
A recently updated and very readable CDC publication, Psychology of a Crisis (available in full below), provides insight into the unique processing of crisis events that can give first responders additional tools in managing persons under the stress of the current pandemic.
Here are four ways to improve communications during a crisis:
1. Simplify your message
Whether in person or through media, sift through the things you want to say to find the few things you need to say. When a person is under stress, their ability to process and sort out multiple messages, interpret confusing messages and juggle multiple sources of information is compromised.
Organizationally, this means coordinating as much as possible with other entities in order to find a common language to express common priorities. Regional emergency management teams with a public information officer can synthesize and standardize these messages. People naturally seek multiple sources of information including social media until they find something they can agree with or believe. Hearing the same thing from authoritative and credible sources can help stressed brains make better decisions.
People will naturally rely on their previous ways of coping such as self-reliance, minimizing risk and hoping for the best. Our ordinary assumptions about our safety and risk are challenged by unusual circumstances: I don’t need to evacuate since the fire is miles away, we’ve always survived storms before, I’ve always been very healthy so I’m not worried about this virus. Repeated simple messaging and factual reporting can help shift thinking to a more immediately realistic pattern.
For one on one communication, realizing that many people are under unusual stress can help first responders slow down when speaking, be clear and concise when offering help or making demands, and frequently ask if the other person understands.
2. Offer a course of action
Messaging with mere data and reports does not solve the problem of a distressed person wondering what they should do. Simple, achievable strategies should be advanced.
The stressed brain that has never faced a situation like the COVID-19 pandemic will be searching its own memory of behavior templates to find a solution to ease their fears. First responders are trained to respond to the situations they face. The neural pathways for decision-making are already formed. For persons facing new situations for which there are no existing response patterns in their minds, the thought process can be a mass of uncontrolled misfires. A simple plan can focus their attention on a viable solution.
3. Acknowledge uncertainty
Those trained in crisis intervention know that honesty, even if harsh, will build credibility on the part of the helper. It also creates a foundation for problem-solving. Saying everything is going to be alright is a predication no one can make. Saying that you don’t know right now but you are working on finding an answer keeps the line of communication open at both an organizational and personal communication level. Never make a promise unless it’s in your power to deliver.
During widespread events, people can be consumed with fear and dread. They may overestimate the situation and their own powerlessness. Fear can motivate positive action if it is based on a reasonable response to facts. Keeping a balance of positive messaging such as official action and personal strategies and success stories can reduce feelings of helplessness that can result in extreme reactions. Encouraging positive actions such as posting a flag in unity or donating to a cause can help folks do something rather than remain helpless.
4. Maintain encouragement to avoid panic
Although law enforcement and other first responders may see a rise in extreme behavior, the mythology of masses of people acting out in panic belies the reality that most people are operating as rationally as they can based on the facts and their perception of their situation.
Maintaining a presentation of the truth of a situation is extremely challenging to leaders. Major media outlets are being accused of using photos and footage attributed to the current situation from files of old news stories or from other countries in order to enhance their headlines and lead stories.
Fears from the public include belief that the truth is not being told and that special treatment and access is being given to special classes such as the wealthy and politicians. This can lead to unorthodox searches for cures and safety. Providing information resources, including those regarding mental health, can be reassuring even if they are not accessed.
For both organizational and personal communication, responders must expect and understand suspicion, outrage and accusations will exist. Providing empathy, realistic reassurance, facts and action steps can help weather the storm.