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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

(The Psychology of) Surviving Disaster

Original Article

If you get a chance to catch this show on PBS, please do so.  The show, Surviving Disaster with Amanda Ripley, talks about the psychology of disaster response and how your brain reacts to trauma.  More importantly, the broadcast includes way to "train your brain" to react more efficiently and effectively to a disaster.  Here's the high points:

  • It is important to prepare for high consequence, low probability events.  In other words, although these events may never happen, if they do they will be of high consequence to you so you need to be ready.
  • The stages of survival include: denial/disbelief that the event just happened, deliberation while you think of how to respond, and the decisive moment when you take action (or don't).
  • At the moment of the trauma and right after you will probably experience sensory distortion.  On a side note, with experience and training you can mitigate this response to some extent.
  • It is important to train for a disaster--both actual rehearsal and mental rehearsal--because in stressful situations you will often revert to what you know (ie: you need to train because if you don't know what to do you may end up doing nothing and that isn't good).
  • With good information and practice you are better prepared, more confident, and less afraid (an example used was the announcement on an airplane to put your oxygen mask on first before helping your child.  What flight attendants don't usually tell you is that if you don't put your oxygen mask on first you will probably black out from lack of oxygen after 10 seconds then you will be of no use to anyone.  With that extra information you will be better off in the event of a problem on an aircraft).
  • With the right mindset you have more control over a situation (again the example was being in an aircraft disaster).  Be sure to count the rows to the exits (physically if possible), pay attention to the briefing, and have a "what if" plan.
  • Another example used was a house fire in which two family members died.  As with many residential fires, this one happened at night (10pm-6am is the most common time for house fires) and the family was not prepared (no working smoke detectors).
  • As one psychologist pointed out, most people have a "normalcy bias" which means they don't expect or plan for anything abnormal to happen.
  • The brain also uses "pattern recognition" to give you information about what is happening.  If you have never experienced a certain type of disaster, your brain will have nothing to compare the pattern it is seeing to and it will take longer to react and respond.
  • And more info on the fire example: more than 60% of residential fire deaths are due to lack of smoke detectors in the home; most people die from smoke inhalation, not by being burned in a fire; when there is a fire in your house there will be a "smoke curtain" that you will be unable to see through so get as low to the floor as possible; and finally, can you exit your home blindfolded because this is what it may seem like during a house fire.
  • You need to physically train in order to build "muscle memory" (ask anyone who has been in the military about drills and's critical to a fast, effective response).
  • Scaring people into practicing for disaster doesn't work.  Practicing and training does.
  • It is important to build resilience in order to have a favorable psychological outcome after a disaster.
  • Taking action and being able to feel like you are in some sort of control helps to limit PTSD.
  • Lessons from survivors include: just because an event is improbable, don't put off preparing for it; get a flashlight--it will help you with everything from an electricity outage to a terrorist attack to an earthquake; program your mind to respond; realize that anything can happen at any time.
And a few things not in the show but relevant (ie: stuff I have picked up from the best brain scientists in the world who were on-scene and responding during a range of major disasters over the past couple of decades):
  • If you suffer from PTSD get professional help.  PTSD results from responses from your lower brain.  This is the most primal part of your brain that you have no control over so using logic to try to talk yourself out of PTSD doesn't really work.
  • If you suffer from PTSD talk to others who have experienced similar trauma.  This works in two ways, first you have someone who understands what you are going through so you don't feel so isolated and second, talking about the trauma over and over seems to help normalize the experience in your brain and lessens symptoms of PTSD.
  • People who suffer from PTSD (and depression which often results from the trauma) often try to self medicate with drugs and alcohol.  This doesn't work--immediately you may feel better (actually you will feel numb) but the long term effects are not good.
  • At the moment of trauma, your body reacts automatically (heart rate increases, you take a gulp of air and hold your breath, adrenaline shoots through your body, etc).  As soon as possible after this you need to "ground" yourself.  Take deep breaths then concentrate, focus on something as simple as feeling your feet on the ground, and move around enough to burn off some of the adrenaline.
  • PTSD research and treatment is still fairly new.  If you suffered from PTSD related to Vietnam, checked into treatment for it decades ago and found nothing helpful, check back now...research is moving along and new discoveries about this medical condition are being made all the time.

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