Why Some People Survive a Disaster – and Others Don’t

Why Some People Survive a Disaster – and Others Don’t

My acupuncturist put the fear of god into me about the coronavirus (now called COVID-19). I had experienced my own dismay of foreign nationals being barred from to returning to America if they were suspected of carrying the virus (see post of February 6, 2020) but my acupuncturist told me that the California Association of Acupuncturists had decided that if an patient presented with a fever and cough they would be sent to the ER.

I’m doing my best to keep my own fears about this new pandemic influenza in some kind of perspective.

Yes, it’s wise to be informed and take precautions. Here’s a link to the best available precautionary information about COVID-19 I have found (thank you Julie, for forwarding it to me.). And here’s the link to the official Center for Disease Control fact sheet. Both very straightforward and truly helpful.

Part of the help is being able to put this current threat from a random, unpredictable, to date untreatable form of influenza into a larger perspective.  I googled:

Deaths reported in U.S. from COVID-19 as of March 4, 2020: 11

Estimated deaths in 2019 in U.S. from all other forms of influenza: 30,000

Estimated deaths in 2019 in U.S. from car accidents: 38,000

Estimated deaths in 2019 in U.S. from cardiovascular disease: 647,000

Part of dealing with rising fear is to put those fears into a larger perspective. And another part of dealing with rising fear is to know what to do in the case of a real disaster.

In one of those serendipitous synchronicities, last week, my friend Rhea had recommended the book  The Unthinkable: Who Survives when Disaster Strikes – and Why by award-winning senior writer for Time magazine, Amanda Ripley. An excellent analysis of the factors that helped people survive the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11 or the devastation of hurricane Katrina or being held hostage by terrorists.

The surprising key factors:

* people taking responsibility for their own survival, not waiting for rescue workers or government officials to tell them what to do

* people moving out of denial quickly and acting quickly and decisively – within minutes rather than hours, within a day rather than a week

* people planning for disaster, knowing that “bad things happen to good people,” and preparing for an emergency long before it knocks on the door.  I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, earthquake country, and so part of living here not in fear is to invest in preparing and rehearsing the steps that will need to be taken when an earthquake happens. This earthquake preparedness kit could apply to many other potential natural disasters as well.

One of the most effective disaster preparedness tools I learned from the book The Unthinkable is the very simple tool of “box breathing.” Trainers of police and firefighters have learned that the startle response (loud noise – we blink our eyes to protect them, crouch to protect our innards, put up both hands to protect or fight) is so hard-wired in by evolution that they can’t train even very experienced first responders to not react that way.  What they can do is train people to use that startle response as a cue to do:

Box Breathing

Inhale to a count of four; hold your breath to a count of four; exhale to a count of four; hold your breath out for a count of four.  The systematic breathing does help regulate the nervous system. The counting requires the higher brain to come back on line. The focused attention on the counting, the use of symbols, the use of words, all require your higher brain to stay on online and that is the key to being able to think straight, to quickly discern and choose what action to take.

It will take more than box breathing to manage all the fears that a looming catastrophe like a pandemic flu or pandemic climate change evokes. But the choice to use a tool like box breathing, and the choice to know that we can prepare for possible disaster, are keys to coping resiliently, especially with dangers ultimately beyond our control.