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The Psychology of Survival: 6 Tips for Mentally and Emotionally Preparing Your Family for a Disaster

As hurricanes, fires, mudslides, and earthquakes ravaged countries around the world last year, many of us are re-evaluating our emergency preparedness. But while food and water are critical in a disaster, they may not be enough. Recent research suggests that how you react during and after a catastrophe could make the most difference to your survival.

Just like animals, humans have strong survival responses. Unfortunately, people often choose the wrong one, freezing like a deer in the headlights at the worst possible moment. Case in point: the September 28, 1994, sinking of the M.V. Estonia in the Baltic Sea.

The automobile ferry was carrying 989 people on its usual route from Tallinn, Estonia, to Stockholm, Sweden, when the bow door to the car deck came unlatched. Water quickly flooded the ship, sinking it in less than an hour. Only 137 people survived, including British passenger Paul Barney, who said that while the ship was going down, many people just sat there in shock, unable to move. He told the Observer, “I kept saying to myself, ‘Why don’t they try to get out of here?’”

Laurence Gonzales, author of the bestselling book Deep Survival, has spent more than three decades analyzing survivor stories to learn who lives, who dies, and why. His conclusion: “Personality, emotion, attitude, and how well people cope with adversity have more to do with survival than any type of equipment.”

1. Prepare and Practice

LDS psychologist Dr. Elia Gourgouris and Dr. Terry Lyles, one of the leading experts on Traumatic Stress Response, spent two years training employees of U.S. Space Command to deal more effectively with potential future disasters. Their training covered many aspects, including drills. “One of the best ways to get the mind to perform under pressure is to physically practice beforehand,” says Gourgouris.

“The more prepared you are, the less panicked you're going to be when things go wrong,” says Lyles. “But you have to practice it—it's not enough just to know it.”

Amanda Ripley, author of The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes-—and Why, credits Rick Rescorla, head of security for Morgan Stanley at the World Trade Center, with saving the lives of 2,687 people from Tower 2 during the September 11 attack. She writes, “Rescorla started running the entire company through his own frequent, surprise fire drills. He trained employees to meet in the hallway between stairwells and go down the stairs, two by two, to the 44th floor.”

When he saw Tower 1 burning, Rescorla “began systematically ordering Morgan Stanley employees to get out. They performed beautifully. They already knew what to do. . . . When the tower collapsed, only 13 Morgan Stanley colleagues—including Rescorla and four of his security officers—were inside.”

Others may have survived if they had practiced similar evacuation drills. But in their panic, people started running up to the roof in hopes of a helicopter rescue, only to find the doors locked.

2.  Stay Calm and Adapt Quickly

“It's been proven that if you put somebody under stress, they can't perform simple mathematical problems or recall a sequence of words,” says Gonzales. “In effect, losing your cool makes you stupid. That's an oversimplification, but emotion and reason work like a seesaw. The higher the emotion, the lower your ability to reason, but reason is what's going to get you out of trouble.”

So how do you stay calm amid sudden chaos? Al Siebert, author of The Survivor Personality, wrote, “Your habitual way of reacting to everyday events influences your chances of being a survivor in a crisis.” In other words, practice staying calm in stressful situations, such as driving in rush-hour traffic or meeting a last-minute deadline, and you'll be more likely to stay calm during a true emergency.

Gonzales adds, “People who will be good at survival will get upset when something bad happens, but they'll quickly regain emotional control and begin figuring out what the new reality looks like and what they can do about it.”

3. Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

One of the best ways to train yourself to adapt quickly is by periodically challenging your mind with new or unfamiliar tasks. Studies show that something as simple as learning a foreign language or taking up a new musical instrument can help rewire your brain, making it easier for you to acclimate to a new situation.

“Living in a low-risk environment dulls our abilities,” says Gonzales. “We have to make a conscious effort to learn new things.”

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