Do "Survivors" Do Better in a Crisis?

© 2001, Richard McKnight

© 2001, Richard McKnight

This is an occasional blog on subjects pertaining to leadership, strategy, coaching, leadership development, and everything in between. You can sign up using the form at the left. © 2016 McKnight-Kaney.

IF YOU'VE EVER BEEN in a life threatening situation, you know what everyone who has been knows: when our lives are at risk, we want more than anything to survive. This is a good thing, but a moment’s thought would tell you that not everyone’s efforts are equally effective: some freeze, some run headlong into the arms of calamity, some cope beautifully and heroically. 

The more I look into what people do to preserve their lives in disaster situations, the more I find that the kind of effort associated with successfully coping with a tragedy is more associated with what I call Navigator mode than with what I call Survivor mode. (There are three modes; the third is Victim mode.)

I’ve been reading Amanda Ripley’s bestseller, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes—And Why. “Writing a book about disasters may sound voyeuristic or dark,” Ripley writes, “and there are times when it was, but the truth is, I was mesmerized by this subject because it gave me hope.” 

She’s hopeful, she says, because “Without too much trouble, we can teach our brains to work more quickly, maybe even more wisely, under great stress. We have more control over our fates than we think. But we need to stop underestimating ourselves.” Key to this is Hunter S. Thompson’s counsel, “Call on God, but row away from the rocks.” Disasters are predictable, but surviving them is not: key your wits about you.

The book is filled with stories of aviation accidents, the 911 disaster, fiery infernos, and police shootouts. She depicts what not to do, but also plenty of hopeful, instructive stories about what works. And the least effective response is panic, the tendency of what I have called the Victim Mode. Next least effective is what I call the Survivor response. 

Here’s why.

There are three phases of disaster response, Ripley says. First, there is DENIAL during which we override our sensory input and minimize the danger: the smoke is just a kitchen flare up, not the building engulfed, the gunshots are just a car backfiring, the blood-curdling scream is just a hysterical woman in a domestic dispute.

All this precedes what she calls DELIBERATION, the interval when we realize we’re threatened and we mull over what action to take. This is when we’re at a crossroads behaviorally and cognitively: we can run around like a chicken without a head, the panic of the Victim mode, or go slack, another Victim variant. To this point, Ripley says, “Many—if not most—people tend to shut down entirely in a disaster, quite the opposite of panicking. They go slack and seem to lose all awareness. But their paralysis can be tragic.” Partly, it seems, this is a result of an extremely elevated heart-rate. We notice our pounding heart and it compounds our fear.

Finally, at least if we don’t simply get paralyzed, comes what Ripley calls THE DECISIVE MOMENT. We accept that we’re in danger and we choose a response. How good your decision making, Ripley says, is a function of experience and preparation. Having prior encounters with similar situations—some of which can be obtained through training—help a lot.

One of the most effective ways to train for disaster, is breathing. Here is Ripley:

Over and over again, when I ask combat trainers how people can master their fear, this is what they talk about. Of course, they call it ‘combat breathing’ or ‘tactical breathing’ when they teach it to Green Berets and FBI agents. But it’s the same basic concept taught in yoga and Lamaze classes. One version taught to police works like this: breathe in for four counts; hold for four counts; breathe out for four counts; hold for four; start again. That’s it.

Mindfulness and meditation, it seems, can have lifesaving potential!

When I read the chapter on “Resilience,” I had my biggest aha moment: I had been working on what I call the Serenity Scale, a measure of how at peace you are with life, a state I associate with the Navigator mode. (For more on this, see the April 28, 2016 blog.) Then, I read this in Ripley’s book:

Resilience is a precious skill. People who have it tend to also have three underlying advantages: a belief that they can influence life events; a tendency to find meaningful purpose in life’s turmoil; and a conviction that they can learn from both positive and negative experiences. These beliefs act as a sort of buffer, cushioning the blow of any given disaster. 

Each of these characteristics show up on my Serenity Scale. To the people I call Navigators, it turns out, threats seem more manageable and they are calmer in crisis as a result. But, true to Navigator mode, we must prepare. This mode of living is not automatic. Prepare for disaster, Ripley advises. The more you learn about the things that scare you, the less scared you feel. 

Here is a practical question that ties it all together: When you last checked into a hotel, did you take the stairs down from your hotel room to make sure you could do so if needed? It’s a very Navigator-like thing to do.