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How to survive any disaster May 12, 2008

Posted by Lauren Cooke in Uncategorized.
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I just spent the morning sat in a small cramped exam room, writing about how people can survive disasters and the psychological processes that mean quite often they don’t. There I was, sat in this room surrounded by the scratching of pencils, and all I could think was how fascinating it all was – and how I wanted to get back here and write this blog! Indeed, the events in Burma this past couple of weeks have brought to the fore the issue of human survival – in the same way that unfortunately Bangladesh does every year, and also the Tsunami of Boxing day fame (among many!).

Around the world every day disasters are happening. Whether cyclones killing thousands of people, or a skier skiing into the wrong part of the woods, people are facing conditions and situations that the vast majority of use would flinch at the very mention of. Crashing through the ice on a pond and plunging into the freezing water below. Wandering lonely though the desert, craving water and seeing oases shimmering in the distance. Clinging to your roof and your children as thousands of tons of flood water rip away your belongings. What it all comes down to is survival. Who, once the immediate incidents has passed, will be the one to survive?

People talk fuzzily of the will to live and “survival instinct”. Fluffy nondescript terms that conjure images of the brave sailor facing the sea monsters, or intrepid explorers kidnapped by cannibals. A stupid idea. We all want to survive – and braveness/cowardice has nothing to do with it. What does matter is your ability to adapt to situations – to consolidate the new situations and apply new information to it. You will be more likely to survive if you have had training – such as helicopter crash training, armed forces training, or hostage negotiation lessons (also among many). What you do before the incident has even happened (if it ever does) is of vital importance. The course has made me more wary – I read the safety notice now, and I check to see that my life jacket is under my seat. We all believe it will never happen to us – but just in case it does, training will make us able to deal with life much better.

The problem is, you see, that your brain doesn’t work to well under pressure. A little pressure is fine, I’m sure we all know times when being a little stressed has done wonders for our achievements. But big massive “we’re all going to die” stress is a different matter altogether. It knocks out parts of you pre-frontal cortex. Sometimes it stops you choosing plans of action, and you run around like a headless chicken trying to do everything at once. Sometimes your “Trigger database” is blown out of the water, and you find yourself totally inactive, seemingly unable to make any responce at all – let alone save yourself. In captivity, some people find themselves illogically antagonizing their captors, constantly pushing and pushing until… the captors snap. This is London syndrome – and if you are ever in a hostage situation, be careful to remain unnoticed and compliant, and also to maintain some sort of schedule (so you are in control of your own mind) – even if it’s just checking for escape routes, or remembering to eat.

Essentially, it all looks pretty bleak – we’re all potential victims of heatstroke, of cold shock. Most of us break under nasty circumstances and wobble hysterically in a corner – and yes, that includes the brave among us.

So for this reason I would like to extend a warning. Read the safety handouts on airplanes and trains – just in case. Make sure you have equipment with you if you are going anywhere unsafe. Even just thinking about what you would do can place a template or “script” in your mind – which will come in handy when you seem unable to generate plans of your own!

Be safe people!

tornado warning sign

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