Margie Carter
Margie Carter

Over the last year, our Madison Park Emergency Preparation Volunteer team has been trying to educate ourselves and neighbors to plan and gather resources to help each other survive a disaster. Our work began before the COVID pandemic, and that initial preparation has served us well. We now have an enhanced understanding of our adopted motto: The more we know and work with our neighbors, the better things will go.

In her book “The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why,” Amanda Ripley (2009) raises another important area of preparation: Getting to know our “disaster personalities” before a catastrophe strikes will create a better chance of survival. She offers this notion based on scores of interviews to learn what regular people do before, during and after the disaster and what they could have done better. Her conclusion: Regular people are the most important people at a disaster scene, every time.

Drawing on stories from disaster survivors, from the research of sociologists, safety experts and neuroscientists, Ripley has developed what she calls a “survival arc” to describe what happens inside us in the midst of a disaster. This typically includes a process of denial, deliberation and then a decisive moment.

Ripley says, “Our disaster personalities are more complex and ancient than we think. But they are also more malleable.”

Having a basic understanding of how the human brain functions allows you to be more aware and thoughtful in your preparations and responses, thus taking charge of your “disaster personality.”

 

Knowing your amygdala can get hijacked

Brain science 101 starts with learning about your amygdala, a part of the brain’s limbic system responsible for emotional and behavioral responses to things you encounter. When this part of your brain senses danger, the amygdala typically activates a fight-or-flight response without any direction from you. This signals your brain to pump needed hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which flood your system.

This deeply instinctive function is an old protective mechanism of your nervous system that usually hijacks your response even before you sense there could be a choice about what to do. The active amygdala immediate shuts down the neural pathway to your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that regulates voluntary actions like reasoning, decision making and planning.

Unlike the automatic reactions generated by the amygdala, these frontal lobes of your brain have to be activated to allow you to evaluate your emotions and use rational judgement and experience to consciously respond. This takes self-awareness.

If you understand how you are likely to react, you can learn to override instincts that don’t serve you well, even teaching your brain some new tricks.

 

Uncovering your disaster personality

Getting to know your instincts in the face of calamity might begin in conversations with trusted friends or loved ones. If you find you don’t want to think or talk about potential disasters, that’s a discovery worth understanding itself. Are you concerned about stirring up more worries? Do you equate not talking with being more in control of your emotions?

Carry on, and consider taking up these questions to learn more:

What are your biggest concerns about engaging in emergency planning? Are there specific fears or worries that would be helpful to address?

Are you a person who likes to be independent and self-reliant, or does working with others give you more confidence?

What resources do you most want to have on hand in an emergency? How does that compare with guidelines for emergency kits?

What resources are you likely to be willing to share with your neighbors?

Who would you be willing to trust with your keys? Your pets? Your kids? Your vital information?

What process will you develop for figuring out how to manage your disaster personality?

What steps are you willing to take in the next month? Six months? By the end of the year?

Remember Amanda Ripley’s point that our disaster personalities are more malleable than we think, and this only requires a regular dose of training. Consider visiting Riley’s blog post: “5 Ways to Refine Your Disaster Personality, https://www.amandaripley.com/blog/5-ways-to-refine-your-disaster-personality.

Two years of living with a global pandemic has given us valuable experiences on which to draw. You may know your own and your neighbors’ strengths and vulnerabilities better. You may be more familiar with resources near your home.

Hopefully you have spent more time walking, biking or hiking outdoors and, as a result, you are stronger and have more weatherproof clothing. Weary and so ready to be done with this, yes, but hopefully we have things to be proud of, along with some awareness of how we’d like to further develop our disaster personalities and relationships with our neighbors.

Steady on, everyone: Take care, be generous and spread good cheer as you can.