The Unthinkable

What would you do in a plane crash? If your office building were filling with smoke, what would you do? Typically, we avoid these questions, but when we hear how others dealt with such a crisis, we tell ourselves that we would do better, that we would keep our wits about us.

In “The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – And Why,” journalist Amanda Ripley shares what she learns from interviews with survivors, trauma psychologists and disaster experts. She identifies what makes the difference between surviving and dying while examining hurricanes, a stampede, a large-scale building fire, a school shooting, airplane crashes and the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

During a disaster, we all experience three phases of reaction: denial, deliberation and decision. Many people die stuck in denial and don’t reach the deciding phase. But there are ways to train ourselves to move more quickly and survive.

While most assume people will panic and flee in a crisis situation, denial looks more like a numb delay – if we really understood what was happening, we would become paralyzed. People gather belongings, stalling while their brain tries to figure out what is going on and what they should do. We delay, waiting for someone will tell us what to do, or we go along with whatever the crowd is doing.

Ripley describes what often happens after a plane crash landing: people sit in their seats instead of evacuating. She describes bodies found sitting around a table in a restaurant after a fire. Inaction caused by denial, or fear to the point of paralysis, is why people often perish when they could have saved themselves. While being immobile may lose the interest of an attacking tiger, we haven’t evolved to respond to our environment with action. She likens this paralysis to misunderstanding the inaction of rape victims: not fighting back is hardwired into our brains.

Fortunately, we have time to recognize our tendencies, practice new reactions and create different default actions that can help us survive.

1)    Understand your risks and prepare. Take a moment, wherever you are, wherever you go, to think through the risks of a situation. Do you live where an earthquake is likely? A flood? All homes and offices are at risk for a fire, and driving a car is one of the deadliest things people do almost every day. Everyone could face a disruption to the food supply, or the water system becoming contaminated. After understanding potential risks, get ready for them. Get a smoke detector and change the batteries every time you change your clocks.

2)    Plan and practice your escape. In a hotel, take the stairs at least once from your room all the way outside. Once a week, take the stairs out of your office building. Have periodic, surprise drills to evacuate your house and your work place at different times of day. Read the safety information cards each time you are on a plane – each plane is different, and everyone needs a refresher from time to time. Identify the emergency exits wherever you are – in a movie theater, a restaurant, a store – and think through how you would evacuate.

3)    Lower your anxiety level, and practice breathing exercises. People with higher anxiety levels are more likely to overreact or misread danger signs. Breathing is the one thing you will always have with you, and Ripley encourages everyone to develop a calming breathing technique. She recommends breathing in for four counts, hold for four counts, and then exhale for four counts. Practice this daily so it to becomes a default response to stress, whether it’s at work, sitting in traffic, dealing with an upset child, or during a life-threatening situation.

4)    Cultivate resilience by choosing a healthy attitude. We build resilience through rehearsal. When you are feeling overwhelmed, tell yourself you can influence what happens to you. Tell yourself that there is meaning in what you are experiencing and that you can learn from this ordeal. Tell yourself over and over, even if you don’t entirely believe it. Remember, she writes:

You can influence what happens to you,
Life has meaningful purpose, even though it has challenges, and
You can learn from both good and bad experiences.