Psychology of Survival, Part 2: What is a catastrophic event and what initially happens to you when you experience one

July 25, 2012
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Let’s begin by defining a disaster or catastrophic event. It is defined typically as one “which causes serious loss, destruction, hardship, unhappiness, or death.” In the realm of psychology, it is defined as “an experience that extends beyond the realm of normal human experience, that one would not otherwise encounter.”

One definition of disaster describes the circumstances. The second definition describes what takes place within you as a person, and within others around you.

The circumstances may differ in every disaster, but the impact upon you and the reactions within your psyche will be consistent with each varying type of catastrophic event or disaster.

Your mind is a critical element to your survival. Some of what you need to survive is already within your brain operating within your automatic nervous system. You will have the responses and energy you need to try to survive an initial threat to your survival without any effort or thought. But what will you do with that burst of mobilized energy and capability?

The first step is to realize that your mental preparation will be your first line of survival in facing any disaster.

As you are initially confronted with a disaster, concurrent with the activation of your automatic nervous system, you will naturally experience one or several reactions which are not present in normal experience, but are given to you in order to help you survive beyond your initial “fight or flight” mobilization.

For most people, their experiential mind goes into shock. You may or may not feel numb with this. You may also feel intense fear and/or anxiety, or you may react with anger. Some people go into denial and feel as if they are watching a movie and have a sense of “surrealness.” Most people experience disorientation of varying degrees. Some people regress to feelings of helplessness. Some people discover they simply can’t think. Others experience racing thoughts which are overwhelming. Some people experience the slowing down of time, as if everything around them is taking place in slow motion. These are all normal emotional and mental reactions in response to an extreme abnormal circumstance. These are reactions which are intended to help you. However, they are not designed to control you in your dire circumstance.

It is important to know that these emotional reactions have unintended consequences. If you are numb and detached, you are at risk of exposing yourself carelessly to danger. If you are terrified and mentally paralyzed, or if you are unable to think or are having racing thoughts, or if you regress to a state of helplessness, you may be unable to make any decisions and take necessary actions in your own regard.

Therefore, your first voluntary action in a disaster is to recognize these emotional states and voluntarily push beyond them. You must willfully push through them in order to make a connection with the necessary information already on hand in our mind. Your senses will be heightened and you will have the opportunity to note details and opportunities for survival that you otherwise would not have noticed if you are were restricted and distracted by your reactive mind.

Further, most information that you educate yourself about in advance of a situation will typically return to your mind in the midst of that situation, even if you have not thought about that since you learned it, if you gain control of yourself. Gaining control over your primary emotional responses will enable you to a level of higher functioning and bring you closer to the goal of survival.

Survivors of catastrophic events report that they consciously determined in their minds that they were not going to die that day or in that way. The motivation for many were their loved ones. For others, it was an inner strength they found to support their decision to survive. Some people credit miracles for saving them, such as the intervention of a stranger, an unexplained instinct based on knowledge they could not have previously had, or just being spared by unexplained grace. Some people report hearing directions or warnings given to them supernaturally. Just as the event may be beyond the range of normal, sometimes, so are the saving interventions.

Therefore, prepare your mind in advance with a firm decision that you will be a survivor Reject any defeatist thinking that may cross your mind at any time.

One cannot accurately predict one’s initial reactions until you are in the midst of a catastrophic event. However, understanding the psychological responses, and deciding in advance to move forward through them towards surviving, will place you in the best possible position for surviving to the ultimate conclusion of the catastrophic event.

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