distress signals

Survival Strategies Part 2:
How People React to Disaster.

by Survival Expert James Mandeville ©2020
(First published May 2017; revised April 2020)

This article is primarily for:
The General Public, Medical Personal and Military Personnel.


Psychological Reactions to Disaster.


When disaster strikes, in whatever form it takes, it comes as a shock to us. Additional results of the disaster can be trauma (we are traumatized). Shock is used as a clinical term [Clinical shock is a condition of abnormally low blood pressure that can result when either there is physical damage to blood vessels (haemorrhage) or when the blood vessels become leaky leading to death unless treated.] but has a wider definition, which includes a range of both severe and less acute symptoms, for example, panic attacks, depression, hysterical states and numbness in parts of the body; also, amnesia, fainting, dizziness and poor concentration. Thus, when a life–threatening disaster does occur, even if we have some forewarning, the horror of it is a shock that affects us both physically and emotionally and no one is immune. The degree to which a person is affected is individual.

Assuming you are uninjured and not suffering from clinical shock, your immediate reaction when finding oneself in a survival situation may be one of several states:
  • Panic;
  • fainting;
  • hysteria;
  • inability to think or act;
  • feeling numb;
  • feeling sad;
  • difficulty breathing;
  • a feeling of euphoria, which is rarer.

traumaA psychological trauma [Trauma has both a medical and a psychological definition. Medically, trauma refers to a serious or critical bodily injury, wound or shock. This definition is often associated with trauma medicine practiced in emergency rooms and represents a popular view of the term. In psychology, trauma has assumed a different meaning and refers to an experience that is emotionally painful, distressful or shocking, which often results in lasting mental and physical effects.] initially leaves a person feeling powerless, helpless and paralysed. Psychological trauma tends to be overwhelming, sudden, and it 'owns' you. You cannot think clearly during and after a severe trauma; at the same time, you have to focus your consciousness, to pull yourself together in an attempt to deal with what is going on, even though events may seem unreal to you.

So one could say a trauma is, 'any sudden and potentially life–threatening event'. It can be an event that involves you directly or one that you witness and with which you identify strongly. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York City left many New Yorkers who saw the attack psychologically traumatized. For example, in a fierce combat situation, or following a scenario, such as, an air crash, some degree of trauma is usually evident.

We are usually talking about a one–time traumatic event in a survival situation, but some disasters repeat or are prolonged, so the term 'traumatized' also applies to prolonged or repeated traumas. A one–time trauma may result from:
  • Natural disasters (earthquake, flood, hurricane, fire etc.);
  • an act of terrorism;
  • rape;
  • physical assault;
  • robbery;
  • accidents (automobile, aircraft, train etc.);
  • death of a close relative/friend/colleague.
A prolonged trauma may result from:
  • Physical or sexual abuse as a child;
  • a physically abusive marriage;
  • prolonged combat;
  • life in a prison camp or concentration camp;
  • brutal, repetitive interrogation;
  • life as a refugee;
  • hostage situations;
  • life in some religious cults;
  • witnessing multiple deaths and violent death.
From the above, you will see that being a survivor does not involve only exotic scenarios such as being downed in a plane in the middle of the Amazonian jungle or finding oneself stranded behind enemy lines.

Reactions vary from person to person and depend upon many factors such as the state of the person's psyche before the traumatic experience, the person's particular body chemistry and how it handles the release of adrenaline and other hormones and how it dampens down the effect of these hormones. If faced with a traumatic experience (where a way of life and perhaps life itself is threatened) you may experience some of the reactions listed below.

Emotional reactions:
  • Shock, including numbed emotions. May result in the questioning of perceptions and memory disturbances;
  • denial, which helps reduce to manageable levels terror, helplessness and fear of dying or being abandoned;
  • confusion and disorientation, numbness;
  • panic;
  • weeping, feeling labile; heightened anxiety and insecurity;
  • inflexibility, rigidity;
  • dissociation, feelings of not being fully in the real world.

Cognitive reaction:
  • Disbelief (a self–protective device);
  • disorientation and confusion; difficulty thinking and concentrating;
  • unwanted thoughts: Traumatic memories may intrude on everyday living and in dreams, leaving the person feeling out of control;
  • perceptual problems; the world may seem unsafe, unpredictable, unsteady and unfair;
  • traumatic memories: May manifest themselves as intense, clear and vivid images;
  • forgetfulness;
  • hyper arousal;
  • trouble sleeping;
  • trouble concentrating;
  • heightened vigilance or even paranoia;
  • easily startled; being wary; increased alertness.

Bodily reactions:
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms, nausea;
  • headaches, allergy symptoms;
  • menstrual problems.

The inevitable personal debriefing

personal debriefing

Trauma survivors spend a lot of time thinking about what they could have done differently. The truth is, often they couldn't have done very much differently because the body takes over. The important thing is not what they did — it's that they survived.

Traumatic experiences may lead to some sort of longer–term damage. The immediate effects of prolonged trauma are the same as those for one–time trauma only they recur with each new wave of traumatic experience.

The long–term effects include post–traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), complex post–traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) and a variety of mental and physical illnesses.

Individual reactions: When a disaster occurs — the shock happens — people react in different ways. Training goes a long way towards simulating scenarios that help a person to control his or her reactions, but there is a difference between simulating a survival situation and actually being in one. No one is immune from reacting as above; we are all human and we all have weaknesses.

What can you do to help a shock / trauma victim?

If possible, the victim needs help from a medical professional. If this is not possible, there are some things that can be done to help:

  • Allow the victim to tell you what happened to them, encouraging him/her to go into as much detail as they can. Talk gently and kindly (but not patronizingly), not pushing them to talk about areas that are obviously too painful (this can be done later by a trained professional).
  • Reassure the person; it is important for them to understand what has happened to them and to hear that they will recover and everything will be all right, but do not lie to them, it is better to tell them the truth.
  • Look after the person and make sure he/she is eating and drinking. In extreme cases, they should not be left on their own, night or day.
  • It is important that people around the victim act as normally as possible. Even in an extreme survival situation, the victim should be encouraged to take part in normal, routine activities, such as, collecting wood or lighting a fire. The victim should not be stressed with important decisions, for example, deciding which way to travel, etc.
  • If you are on your own, understanding what has been written in this section will help you to recognise what is happening to you. A good approach to handling shock and trauma on your own is to write down exactly what has happened to you (or play it back in your mind). Note down what you saw, how you feel, and conclude with a sentence that underlines your belief that you will get back to normal and everything will work out fine.


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