Every passing day brings with it the potential for adversity, manifesting in various forms that impact our lives. Financial setbacks, emotional upheavals, or physical challenges—all are facets of the disasters that constantly loom over us.
Some calamities may capture public attention, prompting a fleeting sense of relief that it’s befallen others and not us, at least not yet. However, considering the inevitability suggested by the saying, “It’s not if but when,” there might come a day when we confront a disaster of monumental proportions that rattles the very core of our existence.
Despite the prevalence of this looming threat, many individuals proceed with a nonchalant approach, seemingly convinced that disaster is someone else’s problem. The hope that such catastrophic events never touch our lives is a sentiment often expressed, but as Hunter S. Thompson wisely advised, “Call on God, but row away from the rocks.” The Latin philosophy of “Carpe diem” takes on a lesser-known form—Carpe noctem—encouraging us to seize the night, a metaphor for preparing for the darker times.
In an era where society advances into the 21st century, there appears to be a diminishing illumination, an increasing acceptance of darkness. Our desensitization to the world’s shadows has robbed us of our natural fight-or-flight instincts, potentially placing us in greater peril than the disasters themselves.
Studies exploring human psychological reactions during disasters, including a 2019 research paper in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care, consistently highlight a crucial conclusion: some individuals are more predisposed to survival in the face of calamity.
Setting aside the concept of Darwinism, it becomes evident that psychological and sociological factors play a pivotal role in determining who can maintain composure during disasters and who succumbs to panic.
However, this doesn’t imply that those lacking specific survival traits are doomed. On the contrary, numerous psychological survival skills can be cultivated and honed to sharpen our minds for the inevitable challenges that may confront us in the future.
Dispersing Brain Fog
The concept of the “fog of war” has long been associated with the disorienting sensation experienced by soldiers during combat, a result of the extreme stress war imposes on both mind and body. In warfare, this state of disorientation can significantly hinder a soldier’s ability to act effectively in life-or-death situations.
Similarly, civilians facing disaster scenarios can find themselves enveloped in a mental fog, rendering them confused and paralyzed in their decision-making. To mitigate this cognitive challenge, military strategists devised the OODA loop—an acronym for observe, orient, decide, and act. Originally designed for military decision-making, the OODA loop has proven invaluable not only in the battlefield but also in various other realms such as business, academia, and personal decision-making.
When confronted with the fog of disaster, the stages of the OODA loop break down, leading to a pronounced deterioration in our capacity to make rational decisions. The question then arises: how can we discern if we are susceptible to the potential brain fog that may engulf us during times of crisis?
In our contemporary world, characterized by the “new normal,” here are five quick psychological fitness tests to assess one’s emotional resilience in the face of disaster. Additionally, explore mental exercises aimed at fortifying the cognitive muscle required for survival in challenging situations.
Mental Resilience Assessment #1
Has Complacency Weakened Your Will to Thrive?
Explored in Steve Tarani’s book, “Your Most Powerful Weapon: Using Your Mind to Stay Safe“, the concept of normalcy bias is examined as a cognitive defense mechanism. Tarani defines normalcy bias as a mental state triggered when confronted with a threat that overwhelms our cognitive capacities.
This state of mind induces disbelief in the severity of the situation, leading to a significant underestimation of potential consequences and a tendency to reinterpret events rather than taking decisive or evasive action.
Instances of normalcy bias often surface in historical events, as seen in the case studies of 9/11 victims who, despite imminent danger, were observed searching for personal belongings amidst engulfing flames. When threatened, the brain releases chemicals that elevate heart rate and prepare the body for danger.
Individual responses to these chemicals vary due to the progressive shutdown of psychological tools that enable normal functioning. Blood flows away from the brain, protecting internal organs, and the part of the brain responsible for rational behavior is overridden by the older brain, activating the primitive survival system.
Tarani references a 2004 article from the University of Lancaster, suggesting that 85 to 90 percent of individuals in disaster scenarios succumb to the effects of normalcy bias, while 10 to 15 percent remain composed or fall into blind panic. There is a discernible societal trend reflecting an increasing population ill-prepared to face contemporary threats, possibly attributed to a diminishing reliance on instincts due to technological dependence and adaptive-thinking skills.
Overcoming normalcy bias becomes imperative for survival in calamitous situations. Recognizing its existence in the mind and understanding its potential impact are essential first steps. Mental training, involving the replay of potential disaster scenarios until it becomes habitual, is a proactive strategy.
Transforming the process into a mental game can be a more favorable option, as it increases the likelihood of defeating normalcy bias rather than succumbing to its potential harm or fatality.
Mental Resilience Assessment #2
Are You Knowledgeably Equipped?
Extensive research underscores the critical role of information not only in comprehending the entirety of disaster preparation but also in navigating and surviving calamitous situations. Action in times of crisis relies heavily on access to information, yet the immediacy of such crucial data is often elusive during disasters.
In the face of unfamiliar information, individuals frequently find themselves paralyzed, attempting to process the inundation of data. The brain, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information, becomes mentally immobilized, potentially costing precious time and lives in a disaster scenario.
Various researchers emphasize that survivors of disasters are those who engage in proactive preparation and practice ahead of time. These individuals do not deliberate amidst calamity; they have already undergone the mental processes that others are currently grappling with.
Through diligent research, receipt of information, and mental rehearsal, they equip themselves for decisive action. Those who actively seek information adopt a proactive stance toward global and local events, staying informed about current trends while enhancing their preparedness through knowledge-building activities.
The quest for accurate information must, however, be anchored in credibility. In a society where everyone seems to wield expertise and information is often politicized, discerning credible sources becomes a formidable task.
Despite the challenges, credible information exists, necessitating thorough investigation. Once citizens attain a state of readiness through informed decisions, adopting a holistic and common-sense approach to disaster preparation becomes considerably more manageable.
Mental Resilience Assessment #3
Are You Mindful of Your Environment?
In an era dominated by mobile devices, hectic schedules, and an overwhelming influx of information, our culture has become inherently distracted. The days of quiet reading, family dinners, and solitary introspection seem to be fading away amidst the exponential surge in social and digital media.
As society and technology advance at an unprecedented pace, the consequence is a growing disconnection from both each other and our immediate surroundings. Unfortunately, this detachment has left us inadequately conditioned to recognize potential threats in our environment.
The argument that American culture has gradually eroded fundamental instincts, particularly the instinct for self-preservation, warrants examination as an underlying issue. The immersion in a digital world limits our reliance to the senses of sight and sound, neglecting the three other vital senses crucial for making well-informed decisions in life.
Consistently engaging only two out of our five senses can lead to a weakening of the rest of our sensory faculties. This sensory imbalance may render us oblivious to potential threats, as our dulled senses fail to recognize dangers in our environment.
As a collective, society has forfeited its innate sense of threat awareness, largely because we have become masters of our digital universe. This trend not only distorts realistic expectations of life but also diminishes our instinctive need for self-preservation.
Mental Resilience Assessment #4
Do You Possess the Soft Skills to Become a Hard Target?
Irrespective of the disaster’s intensity, our vulnerability escalates if we allow ourselves to become “soft targets.” Succumbing to normalcy bias, lacking information, and being devoid of situational awareness render us soft targets, exposing us to additional harm and, in extreme cases, even death. In essence, we become susceptible to harm by neglecting the construction of the necessary mental defenses required for self-protection.
Author Sam Sheridan, in his book “The Disaster Diaries,” delves into the concept of mental preparedness, emphasizing that while physical abilities may come into play during a crisis, clear thinking is equally, if not more, crucial. The capacity for decision-making emerges as the paramount factor influencing survival.
Transforming into a “hard target” demands effort and strategic planning, with potentially lifesaving results for both individuals and their loved ones. Initiating the journey toward becoming a hard target necessitates acknowledging the inevitability of unfortunate events, acknowledging that they could transpire at any moment.
Disasters, by their very nature, are unpredictable, catching most individuals off guard, whether in the form of a vehicle accident, a mugging, or an earthquake. Recognizing this reality distinguishes hard-target citizens from soft-target victims.
Once this truth is accepted, the onus falls on us to formulate a disaster plan, ensuring that we do not fall victim to the calamity of being caught unprepared. This proactive approach not only enhances our readiness but also empowers us to act decisively against specific threats in the face of disaster.
Mental Resilience Assessment #5
Do You Recognize That Predictable Is Preventable?
In the culmination of our quick mental fit tests, a fundamental question arises: Have you cultivated a heightened level of awareness to circumvent potential disasters proactively? This proactive stance is commonly referred to as mitigation in disaster-management circles.
Acknowledging that disasters often unfold unexpectedly, it is equally vital to recognize that we frequently place ourselves in compromising positions that may lead to harm. Perhaps it’s prudent to reconsider traversing a dark alley alone or embarking on a new hiking adventure without informing others of our whereabouts. Opting against allowing underage sons or daughters to attend certain social events, such as local college fraternity parties, may also be a means of mitigating potential risks.
The spectrum of bad decisions in hazardous situations is vast and has regrettably claimed thousands of lives. In essence, if a negative situation is predictable, it can be prevented by taking proactive measures to mitigate adverse outcomes.
However, decisions made out of fear often cloud the decision-making process, leading to the construction of emotional walls that limit our comprehension of situations and environments. A Chinese proverb wisely advises that “nothing is to be feared, only understood.” Confronting fear entails not only self-awareness but also an understanding of our surroundings. By facing our fears, we gain the ability to predict potential outcomes and actively work towards mitigating preventable dangerous situations.
Constructing the Cognitive Framework
Amanda Ripley, in her book “The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes—and Why,” imparts the wisdom that understanding our disaster personalities before calamity strikes might improve our chances of survival. This proactive approach not only dispels some of the uncertainties from our imaginations but also unveils hidden aspects of ourselves.
Disasters, by their very nature, are abnormal occurrences, pushing human beings into situations they were never meant to experience. Dealing with calamity in real-time often proves challenging for many individuals, leaving behind emotional scars that persist even after the disaster has subsided.
While billions have been invested in developing mental healthcare programs for first responders and military personnel, a significant gap exists in extending the same comprehensive care to civilians.
The trauma induced by disasters becomes apparent in the survivors, as the untold stories of those who perish remain buried in the rubble. Although not every death can be prevented in a disaster, providing ourselves with a fighting chance before a crisis emerges is a sensible approach.
However, preparation transcends merely gathering equipment and devising plans—it should adopt a holistic nature. Mental preparedness for emergencies should be prioritized as much, if not more, than physical preparedness. Engaging in small emotional and mental steps each day not only readies us for potential disasters but also aids in avoiding the mental fog of calamity that claims so many lives.
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