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


4. Reach Out

Lancaster University psychology professor John Leach writes in his book Survival Psychology that in disasters, doctors and nurses have better survival rates because they are trying to help other people. According to Gourgouris, reaching out to someone else, even if you don't have medical training, can help you survive, as well as others.

“Helping people gives you purpose,” he says. “Something as simple as comforting a child can make you feel useful, like you're doing something. Otherwise, it's easy to remain in a state of shock, staring off into space and not doing anything at all.”

Similarly, Gonzales says it's extremely important to have someone other than yourself that you're working toward—even if they aren't with you. “In many of the survival situations I've researched, the survivors say they were thinking about their mother or their child—someone they had to survive for. So the corollary is, the more socially connected you are, the better you do in survival situations.”

5. Break Tasks into Small Steps

According to Gonzales, one of the best ways to cope during a catastrophe is with some directed, organized activity. “It helps to get you thinking again,” he says. “In one case I researched, there was a man skiing solo in Grand Teton National Park when he broke his leg. He had to drag himself for about five days before he found help. To get through the ordeal, he broke up [his journey] into one hundred moves at a time—and every hundred moves he dedicated to something or someone in his life that he loved.”

John Leach, who has conducted research on the mental, emotional, and psychological elements of survival, writes, “Debriefings of survivors show repeatedly that they possess the capacity to break down the event they are faced with into small, manageable tasks. Each step, each chunk, must be as simple as possible. . . . Simple directed action is the key to regaining normal psychological functioning.”

6. Stay Positive

Experts agree that having a positive attitude can drastically affect a person’s recovery from a traumatic event.

“Gratitude is a huge way to give life definition,” says Lyles. “Even when tragedy strikes, if you can be grateful for what's happening and for the learning experiences from the event, it will give your life purpose.”

“Ask simple questions like: ‘What am I grateful for?’” counsels Gourgouris. “That might seem like a peculiar question, but instead of concentrating on what you've lost, focusing on your blessings elicits a positive response. In a crisis, concentrate on the successes that you've had. It will give you hope and strength for the next day.”

In studies conducted by Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck, people with a positive attitude are shown to overcome obstacles and adjust to new situations more quickly than others. She refers to a “growth mindset,” indicating the attitude of people who are not discouraged easily and are willing to make mistakes.

“Some people have the mindset of the victim—the world happens to them,” says Gonzales. “The other mindset people have is that they can direct their behavior and direct what happens in their lives—control their destiny to a large degree. They think, ‘Here's something bad, now what can I do to not only deal with it but maybe turn it to my advantage?’ For people who look at themselves as victims, it's a good idea to start practicing thinking about things in another way.”

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