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Survivor Psychology

September 12, 2014


That’s the average amount of time survivors of the World Trade Center attack sat at their desks for before trying to escape the building.

THE HUMAN EMOTIONAL RESPONSE TO DISASTER can be somewhat quantified. Researchers know—by looking at case studies from some of history’s most notorious events— that there’s a measurable pattern in group behavior in response to such an event. The idea that human resilience can be measured is not a universally agreed upon, but in looking at some of the greatest disasters in human history, certain parallels have not gone unnoticed. Assuming that there was no anticipation or warning of the event, the severity of the initial reaction phase is directly proportional to the amount of life, property and community loss. This speaks about the population affected as a whole, but the individual’s ability to cope is dependent on intrinsic factors that influence how a person reacts to a catastrophe.


What determines an individual’s capacity for resilience? One may use the often cited prayer of AA members, The Serenity Prayer to put a more palatable spin on the concept of resilience:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Resilience is that wisdom and from that wisdom we are able to cope with whatever emotional demands are placed upon us. Each person’s unique psychology determines their capacity for coping, i.e. their life experience may or may not have yet presented them with opportunities to “know the difference.” Further, they may be genetically predisposed to either a more innate concept of “the difference” or, opposing, a genetic ignorance of it. While life experience certainly can prove or disprove one’s theory about their ability to cope, on some level, coping is a biologically ingrained process. This also assumes that a single person can accurately judge their own coping ability; how often do we suppose that we are coping only to find out through therapy or some personal disaster that we were not coping at all, but rather, our efforts were in fact detrimental to our emotional health? During a crisis, one’s preconceived notion of their coping ability will no doubt be challenged; and may in fact determine whether they live or die. But who wants to wait until their life could be lost to find out if they’ve been real with themselves about their capacity for resilience?


DISASTER EXPERT ANIE KALAYJIAN AGREES that most of our fantasies about our own heroic ability in the face of a crisis are not necessarily accurate representations of our actions in reality. “In at least one study, where people were asked to write down how they would react in a fire, follow-up showed that when a fire actually did occur, hardly anyone did what they thought they would do,” says Kalayjian. “Most panicked and were far more excitable than they predicted.”

If “most” did not react the way they expected to, what about those who did? If there is a singular quality that makes someone more likely to survive a major disaster, is it something we are all capable of having? Or are some of us doomed to flail about in a panic at the first sign of disaster? Kalayjian, and other researchers in the field of disaster psychology, have theorized that if there is one quality that could determine who among a group of people would survive a crisis, it’s the ability to live in the moment. “Being in the moment does not mean being unaware of the consequences of any actions you take; it means you do not have a prejudgment about those consequences .”

THOSE WHO SURVIVE A DISASTER ARE OKAY WITH AMBIGUITY. They are not asking “What If”, nor do they have any desire to ruminate on possibilities. In the moment, they are observing their surroundings with a keen awareness — and the intent to act, not to understand.In addition to letting go of a sense of control, and being okay with not knowing what comes next, a survivor can be flexible and change their behaviors quickly and confidently as the situation evolves. So, if a door won’t budge, they’re the one looking for a window.The good news is, this line of thinking is largely a learned behavior. It’s not necessarily rooted in our genetics. This bodes well for those of us who are aware that we may perseverate too deeply in a crisis, putting ourselves and others at risk. Where this tendency is rooted, however, may not be our DNA but certainly can be found in our childhoods. If we experience or are witness to a crisis during our formative years, we learn by watching other people react around us. As children, our concept of mortality, our values and even to some extent, our fears, are not entirely formed yet.


Al Siebert, PhD, points out:

“My 40-some years of research into the nature of life’s most resilient survivors shows that experience in coping with and surviving previous emergencies and tragedies is the best preparation for handling new ones.”

As we are exposed to more and more adversity, we become somewhat desensitized to the experience of not having control of a situation, of handling emotional extremes, and being exposed to a series of unpleasant stimuli. Put this way, it makes sense that someone with a lot of disastrous experiences just wouldn’t be caught off guard in a similar situation. They might even think, Oh, this again? And be able to move through the motions of action and recovery. What appears to be strength and courage may boil down to experience and ample exposure therapy.

September 11th, 2001


IN TERMS OF DISASTERS, terrorism is perhaps the singular case in which the entire aim of the disaster is to psychologically destroy a community of people. While most disasters, either manmade or natural, are either random or accidental, terrorism is designed to target and damage the emotional well-being of the victims, in addition to perhaps the larger goal of taking lives.The images from the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center that are etched into the mind of Americans as an example of both the physical and psychological destruction that terrorism makes possible. While almost three thousand people perished as a result of the attack, thousands more suffered psychological damage. For some, it was just in the weeks and

months that followed. For others, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder still plagues them more than ten years later. For the entire population of the United States, the reach of the terrorist attack created a massive social trauma that achieved its goal of instilling fear and panic into the hearts of its citizens. Of those who survived the attacks, the average amount of time it took them to process what was happening and take action was six minutes. While it no doubt felt like an eternity to the individual, six minutes is a fast enough processing speed that it allowed these people to make their way to safety. Others who may have taken immediate action, and should have made it out safely, may have had their efforts obstructed by forces beyond their control. Forces that may have been perpetuated by those who were literally paralyzed by fear, becoming physical human hazards. This type of mental paralysis is very real; the question of whether or not you can literally be “scared to death” may have originated from this phenomenon. The theory of “psychogenic death” is more commonly referred to in literature as “voodoo” death, because it is most often associated with case studies where sorcery was said to have caused a death.

The psychologist behind this theory, Walter Cannon, was interested in where psychology and physiology intersect: can our physical response to a sudden, intense emotional stimuli actually cause grievous bodily harm? In modern psychology, the idea of psychosomatic illness is hardly an uncommon occurrence. Quite regularly physicians chalk up a patient’s symptoms as being firmly related to psychological and social stressors, rather than an actual, physical disease. It should not be mistaken for “false” illness, however: the symptoms of psychosomatic illness are very

real. But they are symptoms: the patient’s subjective experience of their illness, not signs. Signs are measurable, identifiable effects of a disease process in the body. This vital distinction can often lead people to believe that the body-mind connection is not valid. In reality, medicine has been able to consistently document the body mind connection as a source of physical and psychological illness, particularly in cases of chronic pain with no obvious etiology.

In the case of Voodoo Death, Cannon hypothesized that such a shock to the emotional center caused a rapid drop in blood pressure. Such a drop being the result of slowed blood flow from constricted arteries in response to a surge of adrenaline (the “fight or flight” response). Prolonged low blood pressure damages all major organ systems, causing rapid deterioration of the patient’s health on a systemic level, and if not corrected, a fairly hasty death. As the low blood pressure deprives major organs of blood flow and anxiety increases from the emotional stimuli, a patient is likely to also forgo eating and drinking, which only hastens their deterioration. Their pulse and breathing increases from this added strain, and quite literally, the body can no longer function in such a heightened state of arousal. That “fight or flight” response is not meant to last for days at a time. A short burst is all our ancestors needed to bolt away from danger, or to fight off a predator. Then, when they were safe again, they could “come down” from the adrenaline high, their body returning to a natural state of homeostasis. Prolonged release of adrenaline greatly wears on the body’s adrenal system, and is not sustainable for life. While the scientific evaluation of trauma psychology and its link with psychosomatic illness has evolved since Cannon’s time, he is considered the forefather of such explorations into the mind-body connection. Had Cannon applied such knowledge to modern disasters, he would have likely seen a common thread:

Those who survive stay calm on both an emotional and cellular level.


Author: amae-amaeru

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