Turning Ourselves Into Better Survivors

Blog by: 
Dr. Nicola McCaffrey (DClinPsy.)
Clinical Psychologist

In the last few decades several major disasters have struck. Some, like hurricanes, are predictable, giving people sufficient time to acquire the appropriate supplies and secure or evacuate their homes. Most recently the catastrophic rampages of Hurricane Harvey and Irma in the United States have left many displaced and in need. Other disasters however give little or no notice to those unfortunate enough to be in its path. The recent anniversary of the Twin Towers being a powerful example. Regardless of whether we have time to prepare or not such experiences are typically unexpected and overwhelming.

Whilst it is true that you are unlikely to die as a consequence of such a disaster, you are much more likely to be affected by one in some way or another. Fortunately, for most of us, we learn about said disasters through the media and not through direct experience. These articles and news items can often be a dramatic snapshot of of lives, events, and heroism, but rarely do they demonstrate or discuss the longer-term impacts of such events. Nor do they tend to help us to learn something of ourselves and perhaps even prepare us, and equip us for dealing with such events in the future. Is there a missed opportunity here to educate the public regarding skills that may see them to become better survivors than they might otherwise have been? Perhaps alongside developing a more resilient physical world around us, it is also time to invest in building more resilient and better survivors of such disasters.

Hearing about such disasters many of us might imagine what it might be like to experience them. We wonder about how we might act, or fail to act, how we might respond both physically and emotionally. Whether we will be a hero or a victim. We recite imaginary, and real, conversations using the half constructed sentence “I wonder what would happen to me if……”. Many of us worry that this sentence may not end so well as we believe that we do not have the skills, training, or indeed natural ability to fair well in such situations. Fortunately experts believe that if you are worried about how you might hold up in the event of a disaster there may be a number of things you can do to better prepare yourself psychologically.

We all share a basic biological response to fear. This is what automatically shows up and takes over in a crisis. It is even present in our everyday lives, keeping us safe. It is at the very core of who we are. It is a response that is present at every stressful and challenging event in our day to day existence. Fear produces cortisol which acts on and inhibits the part of our brain that handles complex thinking. When we are scared we often lose the ability to solve problems. In certain situations this fear response may turn into paralysis and inhibit not only our ability to think straight and problem solve, but also to act. interestingly statistics indicate that in life-threatening situations this happens to around 75% of people. On average just 15% of people manage to remain calm, think clearly, and make appropriate plays of action, ultimately saving their lives. The remaining 10% are so overwhelmed by the situation they freak out and become quite dangerous to the survival of others.
One of the best examples of this occurred in the Twin Towers. You might have thought that those who survived exited as fast as they could following the hit. For the majority of survivors however this was not true. On average those that survived the attack waited around six minutes before leaving the buildings, some waiting as long as thirty minutes! Most people were entirely unprepared for what was happening either carrying on as normal or waiting for others around them to act first. One study reported that around fifty percent of survivors found themselves delaying escape by tidying their desk, making phone calls, or shutting down their computers before they attempted to leave.
So why does this happen and how can we override this and improve our own chances of survival? In an emergency situation often the events are occurring much more quickly than we are able to process and problem solve. The increase in adrenaline and cortisol, which are related when we feel stress, make it difficult to think logically and limit our ability to access the many different options available to us -- something that is not very helpful when we are trying to escape! Thus in emergencies we often hear about people doing things that seem less than obvious. Most survival experts agree that one of the most reliable and effective ways of being more effective in such situations is by preparing for an emergency in advance. Practice makes actions increasingly automative and therefore the need to think at length is bypassed. The more prepared we are, by way of practice and training, the more control we experience, reducing fear and ultimately improving performance. So all of those fire drills that you have endured over the years strengthen your ability to respond, and ultimately survive, should you ever have the misfortune of facing such a situation. So think through and practice the steps that you can now.

Its also important to get to know yourself better if you want to improve the odds in your favour. Think back now to have you have dealt with everyday crises that have presented themselves. If we get to know and understand our typical responses to disaster, big or small, we have a better chance of surviving. How does stress affect you? What is typically your first response? Is this helpful?

Science also demonstrates that amongst the traits that help a person deal with a crisis is a strong sense of confidence. People who have a perceived sense of control of their behavior in their daily lives, rather than believing they are controlled by fate or by others, have been shown to be more likely to get through disasters. Optimists also tend to fare better in crises than pessimists, perhaps due to their flexibility and better adaption to change. So get out there and work on your self confidence, do what you can to establish some control over your life and think more positively. The chances are you will never have to use these skills in a disaster but, at the very least, your everyday experience of life may benefit.

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