This Model for Adaptive Response to Complex Cyclical Disasters (© 2022) was developed out of a three-way collaboration between Vibrant Emotional Health’s Crisis Emotional Care Team, the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry’s Committee on Disasters, Trauma and Global Health, and Decision Point Systems.

Precipitated by the chronic, recurring disaster of the COVID19 pandemic, and superimposed natural disasters, forest fires and mass casualty events, we saw a pressing need to develop a framework for key stakeholders to make sense of and stage responses to the increasingly frequent and complex array of disaster events we face in contemporary society, superimposed atop chronic psychosocial and socioeconomic stressors.

The following infographic addresses several key topics, including:

  • Revised “Phases of Disaster”, from Anticipation, to Impact, Adaptation, and Growth & Recovery
  • Stress Regulation Model, highlighting key drivers of resilient and less adaptive response paths
  • Focus on key stakeholder groups, including Survivors, Community Leaders and Responders, and specific expert guidelines for adaptive responses
  • A model of Community Stress Load which incorporates the impact of Foundational Issues, Chronic Stressors and specific Disasters
  • The “Community Balance Sheet”, a useful tool for specific communities to conceptualize and account for multiple, overlapping stressors in planning for all Stages of Disaster

Model for Adaptive Response to Complex Cyclical Disasters

Phases of Disaster

Chronic, cyclical disasters push a community through exhausting, recurring phases of anticipation, impact, and adaptation before a final recovery phase can begin

  • We can more accurately assess the cumulative stress load for any community or country after a disaster if we have identified the foundational issues, chronic and acute stressors already present.
  • We can help communities to enhance their capacity to adapt their skills and strategies to mitigate those expected stressors.
  • We can help all ‘faces’ and cultures to understand where they are in the cycle, what is coming next, and what they can change or adapt to manage the stress by viewing each phase from their cultural and role perspective.

Higher risk groups are likely to experience disaster differently than the general population. These groups are likely to be both disproportionately negatively impacted and experience inequity in aid and response. Higher risk groups include underrepresented communities such as racial minorities (such as Black, Indigenous communities, Asian, Pacific Islander, Latinx), religious minorities, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, the LGBTQ+ community, people with low income, people residing in rural and remote areas, refugees/displaced communities, and others. Community leaders and responders must identify and assess these higher risk groups to ensure more equitable response.

The duration and intensity of each phase is highly dependent on the nature of the disaster

How Do We Reach Recovery?

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Faces of Disaster

Each “face,” group or culture experiencing a disaster is composed of various subgroups. Higher-risk communities may be more directly and severely impacted by the disaster and may also experience inequity in response efforts, especially in middle and low income countries.

  • Survivors

    Survivors represent members of the impacted community.

  • Community Leaders

    Community Leaders represents leadership and institutions of power and/or influence in the community. Examples include government officials, religious leaders, and other civic and social network leaders.

  • Responders

    Responders represents the group of workers and community volunteers called upon in the face of a disaster or emergency to protect the lives, property, and overall safety of community members.

Healthy Stress Regulation

The phases of a chronic, cyclic disaster can cause varying level of stress and distress. In response, there is a range of adaptive (healthy) to maladaptive (unhealthy) responses that survivors, the community and responders may experience. Achieving healthy stress regulation in each phase requires different actions by each group. Examples that will help each group remain in the zone of healthy stress regulation are provided below.


If left unmitigated, survivors, the community, and responders will find themselves in the Purple and Red zones of extreme distress. More adaptive actions by individuals and leadership will keep these groups in the Zone of Healthy Stress Regulation

Key Actions to Adaptive Mitigation of Stress

  • Anticipation
  • Impact
  • Adaptation
  • Growth & Recovery


  • Identify and promote survivors that have adapted well in prior similar experiences to work within their community

    Engage in actions to help channel anxious energy, such as calming thoughts, exercise, meditation and other spiritual practices
  • Give survivors with experience room to share memories, experiences and coping skills

    Share access to correct and credible information
  • Participate in culturally attuned memorials for collective remembering and grieving

    Get involved in local projects that are planning for the post-disaster future
  • Integrate disaster experience

    Seek treatment for persistent mental health concerns
Community Leaders

Community Leaders

  • Clearly message quality information on risk communication

    Provision of anticipated needed resources
  • Leverage just in time partnerships to address the most immediate needs

    Promote actionable information from trusted resources
  • Evaluate and restore basic functions (e.g., schools) with appropriate modifications

    Build resources and resilience for middle and low income areas and high-risk subgroups and conduct planning to avoid returning to pre-disaster neglect
  • Encourage restoration of productive relationships between subgroups

    Address competition and resentment between subgroups that has persisted or evolved


  • In planning, capture lessons learned from other communities (if initial onset) or from earlier cycles (if this is a new cycle)

    Address existing or anticipated compassion fatigue and burnout
  • Focus on training and community building to increase capacity for locals to respond and provide sustainable longer term supports

    Address responders’ needs to keep own families safe by offering co-sheltering and shared resources
  • Advise and support responders to feel empowered to continue the work without the influx of outside help

    Enlist disaster mental health experts to support responders at risk of burnout
  • Integrate lessons learned into future preparation, training, and response

    Monitor and seek help for consistent and severe stress/distress

Community Stress Load Threshold

A country or community’s capacity to absorb the shock of a chronic disaster, such as a pandemic or war, depends on the foundational issues and stressors already present. It can be difficult to recover on its own when a community accumulates stressors that bring it to a tolerance limit.

Measure the Cumulative Stress Load in a Community
  • Acute Stressors

    Health, economic, and environmental crises; police-community conflicts (Disaster 1 & 2)
  • Chronic Stressors

    Community violence, war, low income/resources, poor population health, housing instability, lack of political representation, and population loss
  • Foundational Issues

    Unemployment, low trust in institutions, intergenerational poverty, racism and discrimination as examples.

    Stakeholders can strengthen Protective Factors and address Imparing Factors to stay below the load threshold.

Mitigating the Cumulative Stress Load in a Community
  • Anticipation
  • Impact
  • Adaptation
  • Growth & Recovery

Community Balance Sheet

Communities may have ongoing disasters that can result in decreased resources. When survivors, responders and other community members work together, within each phase, these overlaid crises can be decreased to improve the community’s ability to problem solve and recover.