Surviving the Disaster Golden Hour – Part 2, by J.M.

(Continued from Part. 1)

When you’re planning and evaluating your current environment for possible emergency events, don’t just focus on the immediate location and impacts – consider scenarios with a larger scope and secondary and tertiary impacts. You also should make sure you have some balance in how you approach this type of planning – I’m not suggesting that you stop and spend an hour doing disaster planning before you enter any building. If you devote some time to learning about different types of events and can develop the automatic habit of gathering some basic information on things like emergency exits, escape routes, etc. as you go about your normal activities, you’ll be a lot better prepared than the majority of people to handle emergencies.

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

The biggest issues you’ll most likely encounter immediately following a disaster event are fear and the tendency to panic. When the body is under sudden stress, it moves into survival mode, better known as the fight or flight (or freeze) reflex. When that happens the body ramps up production of the stress hormone cortisol which goes to the brain and causes a slow-down in the processing of the pre-frontal cortex, which is where your critical thinking and decision-making occur. That means your rational mind is no longer in control and the amygdala, where the fight or flight (or freeze) reflex and your emotions come from, gets larger and takes over. Finally, the hippocampus, which is where learning and memory are found, temporarily contracts. Hence, humans, when faced with an emergency, are biologically evolved to react rather than thinking critically. Panic makes most people behave in an emotional manner rather than a logical one, as you react emotionally to the danger you face.

Another thing the amygdala does when danger is perceived is to send a signal to your hypothalamus, which transmits a signal through autonomic nerves to the adrenal medulla. When the adrenal glands receive the signal, they respond by releasing adrenaline into the bloodstream. The adrenaline in your bloodstream has a number of impacts:

  • It gives your muscles a boost of energy by causing the liver to break down larger sugar molecules called glycogen into a smaller, more readily usable glucose
  • It binds to receptors on muscle cells in the lungs, causing you to breathe faster and bring in more oxygen
  • It stimulates cells of the heart to beat faster
  • It triggers the blood vessels to contract and direct blood toward major muscle groups
  • It contracts muscle cells below the surface of the skin to stimulate perspiration
  • Your pupils dilate (get larger) to allow you to be more aware and observant of your surroundings

You’ve probably heard stories of people that have lifted cars off of their trapped children to free them – that’s the kind of thing adrenaline can do for your body (although not always without consequences.) There are also people that are addicted to the feeling they get from adrenaline, and undertake dangerous and extreme activities in order to get that feeling over and over again.

All of these physiological reactions can be described in general terms – fear and panic. However, because most of us no longer living in a primitive world where such biologically-driven impulsive and reactive behavior are necessary to save your life, you have to take action to deliberately adjust your responses to accommodate the kind of threats and emergencies you may encounter. Given the complex nature of the environments that many of us operate in, you are at a significant disadvantage whenever you approach any emergency emotionally rather than logically.

Your biology isn’t the only thing that drives your behavior in an emergency; your psychological makeup can also play a significant role. One common psychological issue that impacts people during a disaster is called ‘normalcy bias’. This is where people create their own subjective reality from their perception of what they’re experiencing, regardless of what’s really happening around them. Normalcy bias is a condition where people believe that everything going on around them is or will be returning to ‘normal’, so there’s no reason to panic or take any action. There are a lot of well-documented cases of people exhibiting normalcy bias during emergencies, going back thousands of years:

  • When the volcano Vesuvius erupted, many of the residents of Pompeii watched for hours without evacuating
  • In the 1977 runway crash of two Boeing 747s at Tenerife airport, some people remained in their seats and refused to evacuate as the airplane they were in was engulfed in flames
  • Thousands of people refused to leave New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina approached
  • 70% of 9/11 survivors checked with other people for their opinion before deciding to evacuate the World Trade Center buildings

In a 1994 paper titled “The continuity principle: A unified approach to disaster and trauma” in the American Journal of Community Psychology, researchers concluded that around 70% of people typically exhibit some degree of normalcy bias during an emergency. I’ve actually experienced the effects of normalcy bias on people on at least one occasion – several years ago I was in a project meeting with a customer in high-rise office building and the fire alarm went off. I immediately grabbed my laptop and smoke hood (more on that later) and started heading out the door when several of the people in the meeting got agitated and asked me where I was going. I pointed out that the fire alarm was going off, and they replied that it was probably just a test. I asked them if they had been notified that a fire alarm test was going to be conducted or if they’d received any information that it wasn’t a real emergency, and they said they hadn’t but that they still wouldn’t be very happy with me if I left. I evacuated anyway, and it turned out there had been a fire in a utility room that was eventually brought under control.

Keep Calm and Carry On

So what can you do to increase the chances that you’ll be able to act quickly and rationally to get out of trouble when an emergency occurs? Like any activity, the best way to get better at controlling your panic and fear reflexes is to practice. Unfortunately, unless you’re in a profession like the military, law enforcement or first responders, you’re probably not going to be subject to a lot of high-stress situations that will trigger that reflex, but there are a few things you can do that aren’t too dangerous that may get you close:

  • Ride an extreme roller coaster or other amusement park ride (not the teacups)
  • Go skydiving
  • Look down from a high elevation
  • Interact with an animal that scares you (spider, snake, etc.)

What triggers the fight/flight/freeze reflex tends to vary a lot between people – someone who rides the world’s most extreme roller coasters for fun might faint at the sight of a spider, and someone that sleeps with a snake might be scared to death of heights. Find something that pushes your panic button and look for opportunities to gradually expose yourself to it in a safe and controlled manner to help you get a better handle on how your body reacts and how you can better control that reaction. Depending on your particular trigger you may even be able to use an inexpensive VR headset and your mobile phone with VR apps to simulate the appropriate conditions and practice in the comfort of your own home.

Getting a handle on your panic reflex usually starts with controlling your breathing, which in turn controls your heart rate. Your body is trying to pump as much oxygen into your blood as possible for that quick sprint to get away from that sabretooth tiger you just spotted, so you hyperventilate (fight/flight). In some cases the opposite happens – your body tries to make you as motionless as possible (freeze), so you quit breathing. In either case, you should force yourself to breathe slowly and deliberately for a few moments (assuming you can take the time to safely do so) by taking in a full breath through your nose, holding it for 2-3 seconds and then slowly releasing it out of your mouth.

Breathing control is something you should practice whenever you can, especially if you’re under stress. The more you practice doing it in a wide range of circumstances, the more likely you are to automatically start doing it in a panic situation. Controlling your breathing helps control the panic reflex, improving your ability to consider the situation logically and take appropriate action.

Quoting Pournelle

Another factor that contributes to the panic reflex is being surprised. I’m going to paraphrase one of my favorite Jerry Pournelle quotations here: Surprise is an event that occurs in the mind of the unaware and unprepared (‘Surprise is an event that occurs in the mind of an enemy commander’, THE STRATEGY OF TECHNOLOGY, Possony, Pournelle, Kane, 1997). The situational awareness that’s frequently discussed among the prepper community shouldn’t just focus on what the people around you are doing right now, but your overall current and near-future environmental situation.

For example, I never enter a building without thinking about the possibility of a fire, earthquake, collapse, etc. and locating the nearest emergency exit(s). That doesn’t mean you can possibly think of and plan for every possible scenario or combination of conditions that may occur, but by having thought about the most likely ones your mind will already have a set of considered responses available, so the surprise of an initial event is less likely to cause panic. Something as simple as knowing where all of the possible egress points are, which one is closest and how to get there when visibility is reduced due to smoke gives your mind something to grab onto and reduces the risk of panic.

(To be continued tomorrow, in Part 3.)




17 Comments

  1. I used to travel a lot during my career, mostly USA but also to foreign countries. Prior to 9/11, traveling was pretty easy, but after that it was hellish. The transition from taking everything you need with you to not being allowed to carry anything was awful. I learned to travel in boots, jeans and layers of clothing, count the seat rows to the closest exit on airplanes, carry maps, compass and flashlight with me, and to use very long metal hair pins to secure my hair in a twist. There were always little things in the carry on to handle different situations. After picking up the rental car, the first stop was always a W-M to get a cheap multi-tool, pepper spray and and a few other items, depending on how long the trip away from home would be. For longer than a 2-day stay, I’d FedX a box of items to the place I would be staying. Just being in a new city, new country will put your head on swivel and increase your attention, but as they author says, at home, the normalcy bias can kick in.

  2. Thanks for the insights. J.M.

    Since the time of Google, Fakebook, and Marxist Zuckerberg… we live in the age of A.I. warfare.

    Next… drones with portable, targettable weaponry.

    Thats how they bungled the 2020 US elections.

  3. After 44 years of law enforcement and many different events, i can say you are spot on. I am also a Vietnam veteran, although i was not in direct combat. I believe that as law officers and veterans we become complacent. I had two friends who volunteered to do 3 tours in Nam. They loved it or the adrenaline rush, or a combination of everything. I worked narcotics for 13 years and probably ran between 200 – 400 search warrants/raids. I loved the rush and excitement of the unknown. It became a weekly event for a few years. I never doubted the danger, but i had the scenario perfected. This is where you are correct, know the 5 w`s. Who, what, where, when and why. Then add all other intelligence, ie, weapons, type of drugs sold and usage amount, etc. But the most important intell was the lay out of the property/house to be searched. Often this took many hours of surveillance. Know the bad guys friends, habits, what his daily activity encompasses. So, you are correct, know everything you can about your surroundings. I have seen stress cause an officer to eject a round out of his shotgun, never firing it. I have seen accidental discharges also caused by stress. I loved your closing paragraph about the surprise factor. True, true, true.

  4. A favorite satire writer of mine says, “Panic Early and Panic Often”.

    I agree. I panic when the scenario rolls thru my head, weeks and months before a scheduled event, or when becoming aware of possible threat. This stimulates my planning for preparedness.

    Just this week, 12 miles away, a guy followed first one lady into her house, then another.

    The first lady has a husband who drove out the intruder by having his hand gun pointing at the guy.

    The second lady was 80YO, got pursued into her bathroom where the intruder kicked in the door and stabbed her. The responding officer found her with no pulse, in a pool of blood Ten minutes later she coughed and they got life support for her.

    The perp did get arrested later, and gets arraigned this week. My SIL had pursued the guy and apprehended him 2 years ago. The perp did 14 mos incarceration back then and was released recently, so this attack was another step up in violence.

    Yes, the perp is a meth head. There are many, many more among us. Plan for your own active defense. They are present. Rehearse your defense physically.

    God Bless

      1. More stories, scenarios and good ideas here: Deep Survival
        Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why : True Stories of Miraculous Endurance and Sudden Death

        Carry on

  5. Thank you for the article! A lot going on today so people have probably had little time to check the blog!

    Today, tuned into the March for Trump livestreams. Listened to the President’s speech while scrubbing kitchen counters and cleaning out the pantry. Watched on some independent livestreams the breach of the Capitol building while the political elites scrambled to their tunnels and bunkers. Read the President’s tweets about him being disappointed in Pence and also encouraging MAGA to go home peacefully after all the drama.

    Today’s insanity has got a lot of people thinking/wondering if we’ve truly lost the Republic. A lot of people say, “look, it’s over, move on”, but tens of millions of people are saying today, “Let’s party like it’s 1776”. This causes me to think longer and harder than I’ve already done about my new potential location and surviving disasters, alone. A family member questioned my sanity recently… “but it’s so far out… aren’t you afraid?” Nope. Security alarms, German Shepherds, weapons, can see someone coming a mile away, etc. The only thing I fear is me – the “fight or flight” or worse, “freeze”, as described in the article. I do practice the scenario: in bed at night, hear a sound, grab the 9mm, slowly check the house, practice my aim using the red dot… sigh. Other than a break-in, there’s serious earthquakes in that part of Idaho and those don’t scare me so much. My all time worst fear is Communism taking over this country (more than it already has).

    One word on training panic reflexes: Women who have gone through natural childbirth training are well versed in “breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth slowly”. Birthing a baby is incredibly difficult.

    1. Pence is playing a role in this great theatrics. He is Trump’s Fall guy on purpose. Trump is playing you. Listen to Biden’s speech also. He is playing the good guy and “keeping” Democracy while Trump wants us Christians to break the rule of Law by over turning Congress. Christians/Republicans/conservatives are looking really bad right now. Though, I think Antifa and paid shills were the ones that broke through the barriers at the Capitol. We are being played and divided. Stand back from it. We must war on our knees. We lost this republic a hundred years ago. We’ve just been free ranging slaves.. Try not paying your taxes and see what happens. Now we’re not going to be. The Mask mandate and Lockdowns are proving that. Trump is setting up his followers for Christian Persecution on purpose. WATCH!

      1. I love you to death Lily. I respectfully disagree that Trump is playing us. I agree that we are all being played and divided, but moreso by the Communist party, the Globalists, and Satan. I do believe we should war on our knees, but I also believe that there may come a time when we war with our 2nd Amendment. I agree that the IRS and most federal agencies have entirely too much power. I agree the mask mandates and the lockdowns are unConstitutional. I agree that we’ve already lost the Republic, and way before Trump ever took office, it’s just clearer now. And we need to decide what we’re going to do about it. Just my opinion.
        May the Lord bless you and keep you.

      2. Hey Lily, I love you to death too but I have to agree with SaraSue. Republicans lost the battle decades ago in part because they believe that nonsense that God wants them to be Good Doobies and not go against the rule of law. Thanks goodness the Founding Fathers didn’t believe that!! Too bad the Jews didn’t do that in Germany!!

        The Founding Fathers were NOT patriots. They were British Citizens fighting against their own government, British government. That’s called insurrection. The root of the word patriot is “father” meaning they are loyal to the fatherland. England was their fatherland, American wouldn’t exist yet for decades after their insurrection. They couldn’t be patriots until 1792 when the war was over and they were declared the winners with the right to set up their own government. Now they had a new homeland which they could be patriotic about.

        The Stamp Act was in 1765 and how did the Insurrectionists react? They set up an armed rebellion, taking up arms against their own country, Britain. They tarred and feathered the tax collectors, which often resulted in death. And today Americans are whining about what happened yesterday???

        The American Revolution was TREASON, pure and simple.

        Also, there were four times in MY LIFETIME when insurrectionist went inside the Capitol and committed illegal acts:

        1. On March 1, 1954, four Puerto Rican nationalists shot 30 rounds from semi-automatic pistols from the Ladies’ Gallery, a balcony for visitors, of the House of Representatives chamber in the Capitol. The shooters wounded five representatives, but all of them recovered.

        2. On March 1, 1971, the radical left domestic terror group the Weather Underground exploded a bomb on the ground floor of the U.S. Capitol.

        3. On November 7, 1983 the leftist terrorist group Armed Resistance Unit took responsibility for detonating a bomb in the lobby outside the office of Senate Minority Leader Robert Byrd.

        4. On July 24, 1998, Russell Eugene Weston, Jr. burst into the Capitol and opened fire, killing two Capitol Police officers.

        SO why the heck are all these ^$#@! Republicans whining about these “terrible acts” committed by a handful of people yesterday? All they did was break a few windows and enter the Capitol. They didn’t kill anyone, or light any fires, or set off any bombs like the Founding Fathers did.

        Republicans lost the battle LONG ago and the reaction of Republicans yesterday shows exactly why. Republicans and Conservatives are a bunch of do-nothing pantywaists who think they are too good to do what needs to be done and using God as their excuse. The Founding Fathers are rolling in their graves at the goodie two-shoe Americans who refuse to do what needs to be done, the very things THEY themselves did.

        Americans need to wake up and smell the bacon, but it’s way, way, way too late for that.

  6. SB more important now than ever. Thank you JWR, Avalanche Lily, and all contributing writers and commenters. The USA is in trouble, no matter what happens 50% of the country will be angry and offended, hardly a “united states of america”. In my 69 years, never been this discouraged. But, thank you Lord Jesus, thank you for my faith, and thank you that no matter what happens here, my eternal future is without doubt. Amen.

  7. You can get used to (habituate to) stress. This is why training is important. A really good example of this was back in Vietnam, an anthropologist went on search and destroy missions with Army guys in helicopters. On the ride to the destination, he asked the new guys who had just arrived in country, to pee in a bottle to check their stress hormones. Their cortisol and adrenaline levels were off the charts-as you might imagine. However a few weeks later, going out on missions, their stress hormones were as normal as could be -like taking a drive down to the grocery store. For me, I try to make everything a training exercise.

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