February 25, 2021

Surviving the Disaster Golden Hour – Part 2, by J.M.

(Continued from Part. 1)

When you’re planning and evaluating your current environment for possible emergency events, don’t just focus on the immediate location and impacts – consider scenarios with a larger scope and secondary and tertiary impacts. You also should make sure you have some balance in how you approach this type of planning – I’m not suggesting that you stop and spend an hour doing disaster planning before you enter any building. If you devote some time to learning about different types of events and can develop the automatic habit of gathering some basic information on things like emergency exits, escape routes, etc. as you go about your normal activities, you’ll be a lot better prepared than the majority of people to handle emergencies.

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

The biggest issues you’ll most likely encounter immediately following a disaster event are fear and the tendency to panic. When the body is under sudden stress, it moves into survival mode, better known as the fight or flight (or freeze) reflex. When that happens the body ramps up production of the stress hormone cortisol which goes to the brain and causes a slow-down in the processing of the pre-frontal cortex, which is where your critical thinking and decision-making occur. That means your rational mind is no longer in control and the amygdala, where the fight or flight (or freeze) reflex and your emotions come from, gets larger and takes over. Finally, the hippocampus, which is where learning and memory are found, temporarily contracts. Hence, humans, when faced with an emergency, are biologically evolved to react rather than thinking critically. Panic makes most people behave in an emotional manner rather than a logical one, as you react emotionally to the danger you face.

Another thing the amygdala does when danger is perceived is to send a signal to your hypothalamus, which transmits a signal through autonomic nerves to the adrenal medulla. When the adrenal glands receive the signal, they respond by releasing adrenaline into the bloodstream. The adrenaline in your bloodstream has a number of impacts:

  • It gives your muscles a boost of energy by causing the liver to break down larger sugar molecules called glycogen into a smaller, more readily usable glucose
  • It binds to receptors on muscle cells in the lungs, causing you to breathe faster and bring in more oxygen
  • It stimulates cells of the heart to beat faster
  • It triggers the blood vessels to contract and direct blood toward major muscle groups
  • It contracts muscle cells below the surface of the skin to stimulate perspiration
  • Your pupils dilate (get larger) to allow you to be more aware and observant of your surroundings

You’ve probably heard stories of people that have lifted cars off of their trapped children to free them – that’s the kind of thing adrenaline can do for your body (although not always without consequences.) There are also people that are addicted to the feeling they get from adrenaline, and undertake dangerous and extreme activities in order to get that feeling over and over again.

All of these physiological reactions can be described in general terms – fear and panic. However, because most of us no longer living in a primitive world where such biologically-driven impulsive and reactive behavior are necessary to save your life, you have to take action to deliberately adjust your responses to accommodate the kind of threats and emergencies you may encounter. Given the complex nature of the environments that many of us operate in, you are at a significant disadvantage whenever you approach any emergency emotionally rather than logically.

Your biology isn’t the only thing that drives your behavior in an emergency; your psychological makeup can also play a significant role. One common psychological issue that impacts people during a disaster is called ‘normalcy bias’. This is where people create their own subjective reality from their perception of what they’re experiencing, regardless of what’s really happening around them. Normalcy bias is a condition where people believe that everything going on around them is or will be returning to ‘normal’, so there’s no reason to panic or take any action. There are a lot of well-documented cases of people exhibiting normalcy bias during emergencies, going back thousands of years:

  • When the volcano Vesuvius erupted, many of the residents of Pompeii watched for hours without evacuating
  • In the 1977 runway crash of two Boeing 747s at Tenerife airport, some people remained in their seats and refused to evacuate as the airplane they were in was engulfed in flames
  • Thousands of people refused to leave New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina approached
  • 70% of 9/11 survivors checked with other people for their opinion before deciding to evacuate the World Trade Center buildings

In a 1994 paper titled “The continuity principle: A unified approach to disaster and trauma” in the American Journal of Community Psychology, researchers concluded that around 70% of people typically exhibit some degree of normalcy bias during an emergency. I’ve actually experienced the effects of normalcy bias on people on at least one occasion – several years ago I was in a project meeting with a customer in high-rise office building and the fire alarm went off. I immediately grabbed my laptop and smoke hood (more on that later) and started heading out the door when several of the people in the meeting got agitated and asked me where I was going. I pointed out that the fire alarm was going off, and they replied that it was probably just a test. I asked them if they had been notified that a fire alarm test was going to be conducted or if they’d received any information that it wasn’t a real emergency, and they said they hadn’t but that they still wouldn’t be very happy with me if I left. I evacuated anyway, and it turned out there had been a fire in a utility room that was eventually brought under control.

Keep Calm and Carry On

So what can you do to increase the chances that you’ll be able to act quickly and rationally to get out of trouble when an emergency occurs? Like any activity, the best way to get better at controlling your panic and fear reflexes is to practice. Unfortunately, unless you’re in a profession like the military, law enforcement or first responders, you’re probably not going to be subject to a lot of high-stress situations that will trigger that reflex, but there are a few things you can do that aren’t too dangerous that may get you close:

  • Ride an extreme roller coaster or other amusement park ride (not the teacups)
  • Go skydiving
  • Look down from a high elevation
  • Interact with an animal that scares you (spider, snake, etc.)

What triggers the fight/flight/freeze reflex tends to vary a lot between people – someone who rides the world’s most extreme roller coasters for fun might faint at the sight of a spider, and someone that sleeps with a snake might be scared to death of heights. Find something that pushes your panic button and look for opportunities to gradually expose yourself to it in a safe and controlled manner to help you get a better handle on how your body reacts and how you can better control that reaction. Depending on your particular trigger you may even be able to use an inexpensive VR headset and your mobile phone with VR apps to simulate the appropriate conditions and practice in the comfort of your own home.

Getting a handle on your panic reflex usually starts with controlling your breathing, which in turn controls your heart rate. Your body is trying to pump as much oxygen into your blood as possible for that quick sprint to get away from that sabretooth tiger you just spotted, so you hyperventilate (fight/flight). In some cases the opposite happens – your body tries to make you as motionless as possible (freeze), so you quit breathing. In either case, you should force yourself to breathe slowly and deliberately for a few moments (assuming you can take the time to safely do so) by taking in a full breath through your nose, holding it for 2-3 seconds and then slowly releasing it out of your mouth.

Breathing control is something you should practice whenever you can, especially if you’re under stress. The more you practice doing it in a wide range of circumstances, the more likely you are to automatically start doing it in a panic situation. Controlling your breathing helps control the panic reflex, improving your ability to consider the situation logically and take appropriate action.

Quoting Pournelle

Another factor that contributes to the panic reflex is being surprised. I’m going to paraphrase one of my favorite Jerry Pournelle quotations here: Surprise is an event that occurs in the mind of the unaware and unprepared (‘Surprise is an event that occurs in the mind of an enemy commander’, THE STRATEGY OF TECHNOLOGY, Possony, Pournelle, Kane, 1997). The situational awareness that’s frequently discussed among the prepper community shouldn’t just focus on what the people around you are doing right now, but your overall current and near-future environmental situation.

For example, I never enter a building without thinking about the possibility of a fire, earthquake, collapse, etc. and locating the nearest emergency exit(s). That doesn’t mean you can possibly think of and plan for every possible scenario or combination of conditions that may occur, but by having thought about the most likely ones your mind will already have a set of considered responses available, so the surprise of an initial event is less likely to cause panic. Something as simple as knowing where all of the possible egress points are, which one is closest and how to get there when visibility is reduced due to smoke gives your mind something to grab onto and reduces the risk of panic.

(To be continued tomorrow, in Part 3.)

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