What to do (and not to do) to survive a disaster

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  • In 2011 there was an earthquake in Japan. People risked their lives to . . . save bottles of alcohol.
  • In 2017 a plane caught on fire at an airport in Denver. People fleeing from the plane . . . stopped to take selfies.
  • In Dubai when a plane was on fire . . . people tried to collect their bags.

People argue while their ship is sinking, stand on the beach as a tsunami approaches. In fact 80-90% of people will respond to a crisis in ways that decrease rather than increase their safety. They may be in a deadly situation, but do not act fast enough to save themselves.

In most disasters, people wait–they do not panic, they do not stampede . . . they wait

There is a failure to adapt–especially in unfamiliar environments like a burning plane or sinking ship. Especially in a stressful situation, more thought about what to do is needed, but the situation moves faster than our ability to adapt to what is a new experience.

What to avoid doing (easier said than done):

1. FREEZING

One of the natural responses to danger is to freeze. (Psychologists now add “freeze” to fight or flight.) Your brain stops you, even though you have plenty of adrenaline.

It isn’t intelligence that matters–in emergency situations your thinking brain can shut down. You enter a fight or flight situation-or you freeze.

2. INABILITY TO THINK.

We use our working memory to make quick decisions. (When faced with a new, first time disaster there is no working memory.)

Disasters happen fast (plane manufacturers must show that a plane can be evacuated in 90 seconds-because the risk of the cabin being consumed by the fire increases sharply after this). But our brains do not work that fast most of the time in part because we need to invent a new strategy

  • The speed at which we can go through our options is limited and usually slower than the unfolding crisis.
  • The brain is flooded with dopamine (a feel good chemical) which also triggers the release of more hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. in a disaster as the body prepares for the disaster.
  • Then to make matters worse for figuring out what to do next . . .  the prefrontal cortex (where we think things over) shuts down because of cortisol & adrenaline.

3. Having TUNNEL VISION

In a crisis, it is unlikely that most people can respond creatively about the problem. Instead, what we do is keep using the same solution over and over, even without good results.

Tunnel vision is also seen in people with permanent damaged to their prefrontal cortex. So the brain’s stress response of shutting down this region might be to blame for inflexible thinking in moments of crisis.

4. Staying STUCK IN ROUTINE

James Goff, a specialist in disaster and emergency management at the University of Hawaii has seen shocking reactions to disaster. People will risk their life to retrieve their wallet. It seems crazy, but it is common. This refers to continuing with everyday routines when faced with a crisis.  He says,

“Being in a situation where your life is in danger increases your emotional arousal, and high arousal causes people to limit the number of alternatives they consider. That can be bad when trying to determine a course of action, since you may never consider the option most likely to result in escaping safely.”

5. DENIAL

“Invariably over 50% of the population do it, they go down to the sea to watch the tsunami,” says Goff. “They act as if nothing untoward is happening.” Denial usually happens because:

  • We don’t see the situation as dangerous, or
  • We don’t want to see it as dangerous.
  • We are not good at calculating risk.
  • We rely on our feelings, and sometimes reassure ourselves we will be OK. (Cancer patients wait four months on average before seeing a doctor. On 9/11 people who survived and were on the upper floors of New York World Trade Center waited an average of five minutes after the attacks before they started to evacuate.)

Why can’t we turn these reflexes off?

In everyday life, our brains are reliant on familiarity. Mindlessly getting our bag when the plane lands helps free up mental space to focus on new stuff we need to attend to.

In an emergency, adjusting to the new situation may be more than our brains can handle–so we keep doing what we have done before.

WHAT TO DO:

HAVE A PLAN AND PRACTICE “What if?”

If we can’t rely on our instincts, what can we do?

The best way is to replace automatic but not helpful reactions with ones that could save your life by practicing. You have to practice and practice until the survival technique is the dominant behavior.  It’s a bit hard to practice for a tsunami but you can IMAGINE.

Taking some time to imagine “what if”.  “Ask yourself one simple question, “If something happens, what is my first response? Once you can answer that, everything else will fall into place. 

THE GOOD NEWS – OTHER PEOPLE

Research shows that in most scenarios, groups of people are more likely to help each other than hinder. “In emergencies, the norm is cooperation . . .  Selfish behavior is very mild and tends to be policed by the crowd rather than spreading.”*

“Psychologists call this response “collective resilience”: an attitude of mutual helping and unity in the middle of danger.”

People’s tendency to cooperate during emergencies increases the chances of survival for everyone. “Individually, the best thing tactically is to go along with the group interest. In situations where everyone acts individually, which are very rare, that actually decreases effective group evacuation.”*

 LUCK MATTERS 

but sometimes what is needed is a good dose of luck.

____________________________________

*Chris Cocking, studies crowd behavior at the University of Brighton.

http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170711-what-not-to-do-in-a-disaster

“Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why” by Laurence Gonzales

 

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