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.”
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.”
The Emotional Aftermath
Natural disasters leave more than a path of physical destruction in their wake—they leave emotional scars for both survivors and rescue workers. Gourgouris says common emotional responses following a catastrophe include feelings of panic, despair, anxiety, anger, and isolation. “Feelings like this are natural reactions to trauma, but it's very important to address them.”
Lyles, who counseled people after 9/11 and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, says acknowledging your feelings about a traumatic event is the first step to recovery. “The misconception is that you'll just get over it,” he says. “But you have to detox from it, or it will stay in your psyche.”
Lyles recommends writing a letter about the experience, explaining all the details and all of your feelings, and then burning it. “Do it over and over again until you no longer have a need to write,” he says. “It's an emotional catharsis—like emotionally vomiting and getting the poisons out of your mind.”
Of all the emotions survivors struggle with, guilt is perhaps the most difficult for them to deal with and the most difficult for others to understand. “After the Columbine shooting, I worked with the students at the high school to help them deal with what they'd witnessed,” recalls Gourgouris. “One girl felt guilty for missing the whole thing because she was at a doctor's appointment. She wondered, ‘Why me? Why am I alive?’”
Though it may be challenging, Lyles says it's vital for survivors to work past the guilt and go forward, finding gratitude for their lives. “The toughest part of coming back from a tragedy is that you come back,” he says. “People from 9/11 still to this day wonder, ‘Why did I live when the person next to me died?’ It's the same situation with other disasters. There are no answers, but you've got to move on and accept the reality that you did survive.”
Helping Children Cope
Lyles and Gourgouris recommend specific techniques to help children deal with their emotions following a traumatic event. Having recently traveled to Haiti to work with the children there, the two psychologists say tried and true methods include talking, writing, or drawing pictures about their experiences.
After the devastating tsunami of 2004, Lyles spent time in Thailand helping children cope with what had happened. “I would go by refugee camps to deal with children who lost their parents. They were just sitting around, shell-shocked—not eating, not playing,” he recalls. “With a translator, I started asking them to draw pictures. Children aren't as good at expressing themselves and not as good at writing as adults are, so I asked them to draw pictures and then describe those pictures to someone else. We hung the pictures up with string between the palm trees. Once the kids began getting their experiences outside of themselves and sharing them with others, they began playing soccer and just being children again.”
Gourgouris cautions parents not to force a particular method on their child. “You have to be flexible,” he advises. “Not all kids want to talk. Depending on their age, emotional maturity, and willingness to open up, you may want to have them write it down or draw a picture about the experience. Any one of these ways can help children recover more quickly.” You can also find tips for comforting children after a crisis on the Federal Emergency Management Agency's website, fema.gov.
Catastrophe can strike anywhere at anytime. If disaster does reach you, struggle and pain are inevitable. But having a plan—and having that plan be second nature—will bring tremendous peace of mind and exponentially increase your chances of making it through. With the appropriate physical, mental, and emotional tools, the unthinkable can, in fact, be survivable.
A Child's Reaction to Disaster by Age
Below are common reactions in children after a disaster or traumatic event.
Birth–2 years: Pre-verbal children can't describe the event or their feelings about it. However, they can retain memories of particular sights, sounds, or smells. As children get older, their play may involve acting out elements of the traumatic event that occurred several years in the past and was seemingly forgotten.
Ages 3–6 years: Preschoolers often feel powerless in the wake of a disaster. As a result, they feel intense fear and insecurity about being separated from caregivers. Children this age cannot grasp the concept of permanent loss. In the weeks following a traumatic event, preschoolers' play activities may reenact the incident or the disaster over and over again.
Ages 7–10 years: The school-aged child has the ability to understand the permanence of loss. Some children become intensely preoccupied with the details of a traumatic event and want to talk about it continually. This preoccupation can interfere with the child's concentration at school, and academic performance may decline. They may display a wide range of reactions--sadness, anxiety, specific fears of the disaster happening again, guilt over action or inaction during the disaster, anger that the event was not prevented, or fantasies of playing rescuer.
Ages 11–18 years: Children in this age range respond to disasters almost like adults do. To cope, teenagers may become involved in dangerous, risk-taking behaviors, such as reckless driving. Others can become fearful of leaving home. A teenager may feel overwhelmed by intense emotions and yet feel unable to discuss them with others.