Transcript of Get Ready Report podcast Episode 11: “Surviving a disaster: Controlling our fears, Part 1"

Interview with Amanda Ripley, Time Magazine writer. This podcast is the first part of an interview with Ripley and the Get Ready campaign. The second part of the interview is also available as a podcast and transcript.

Narrator: This is the American Public Health Association’s Get Ready Report, coming to you from Washington, D.C. Today’s episode is Part 1 of an interview with Amanda Ripley, author of the book, The Unthinkable (Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — and Why). The interview explores the book and the extraordinary thought process certain human behaviors during an emergency or a disaster.

Interviewer: What happens to us in the midst of a disaster? And what do some of us do better than others?

Ripley: You know, everything changes. Literally, we use different parts of our brains instantly in a disaster. As one 9/11 survivor said to me, you don’t ever want to have to think in a disaster. And he knew that because he had experienced the complete change that occurs when you are in a life or death situation. So literally, you lose peripheral vision, your heart rate increase, your blood pressure goes up, you get an injection of stress hormones which help you perform physically potentially but actually make it much harder to perform cognitively so you have a lot of trouble making decisions, even simple decisions, or processing new information. So the reason some of us often do better that others usually has to do with what was in our brains before everything went wrong. Because you won’t be able to really progress much from where you were once things go bad. So it really depends on what you had in your head as far as what to do, how to do it, when to do it, before everything went wrong.

Interviewer: How can we overcome weaknesses and boost our odds of surviving in a disaster?

Ripley: The more familiarity you have with any of your major risks and how to get out of them beforehand, the better you will do. For example, if you know that you live in a place that’s at high risk for flooding, which is true of many millions of Americans, then the more thinking you’ve done about what you would take with you, about how you would evacuate, about when you would evacuate, about how you would deal with your elderly mother. All of those things are not going to go very well if you wait until you are under stress. You are not going to make great decisions. So the more you can feed your brain with a plan and thoughts and even execute some of those plans in advance, the better you’re going to do. We know that in general we have certain weaknesses when it comes to assessing risks and performing well under stress. We also have a lot of strengths, but if we can understand what the weaknesses are in advance then we can do a lot better. And one of the biggest weaknesses is that we tend to move very slowly under extreme duress. The more we have done in advance, the more quickly we will push through that phase and perform appropriately.

Interviewer: So that plays into the next question: Why do so many of us shut down or freeze in the midst of a disaster?

Ripley: You know this is so common, so pervasive across every kind of high-stress event. I have talked to firefighters who have many tales of people freezing up, all the way to stock brokers, who see it on the trading floor during a stock market crash. You see it across all kinds of contexts and you actually see it in every animal that’s ever been tested in the laboratory setting. This tendency to shut down or freeze is in my mind an involved defense mechanism. It’s not a sort of “oh my god, you’re in shock, you’re overwhelmed,” although that could be part of it certainly. It is so powerful and so common that I don’t think we would have evolved to this state unless it served a purpose. So I think in particularly in ancient kinds of threats, shutting down in a life or death situation where literally your body goes numb, you stop moving, you look like you’re dead, could be an appropriate response, right?. If you’re getting attacked by a saber-tooth tiger for example. In more modern situations, it’s not as appropriate and so we just need to understand this better because it’s the king of thing we can overcome and it’s very very dangerous in events like fires or plane crashes. We’ve see this many times. We know that this is a bigger risk than almost any other behavior, certainly much more likely than panic, so we should start planning for it in advance.

Interviewer: In your book, you talk about the survival arc that we all must travel to get from danger to safety. Can you explain a bit about that?

Ripley: Yeah, I notice that across all different kinds of disasters — from sinking ships to burning buildings — people tend to go through three phases. And the first phase is a powerful kind of denial where your brain works quite aggressively to normalize what’s happening and to downplay the threat and make sense of what’s happening based on everything that your brain has seen before. And that’s a perfectly normal response, but it can take up precious time. And then the next phase is deliberation, where people become very social and look to each other for cues and advice and information. And that’s also a really important phase but again can take up a lot of time. And then the third phase is the decisive moment where people take action based directly on what’s happened in the denial and deliberation phase. And sometimes it’s the appropriate action and sometimes it’s not but you know often we only know that in retrospect.

Interviewer: So are there any specific traits that might predict how well we’ll do in a disaster?

Ripley: Anecdotally, I have noticed in many many survivors that I’ve talked to that people who have military training or even Boy Scout’s training tend to perform a little better in a lot of situations. But more importantly is not that training but the culture — the whole outlook on life. And there is some research on this that shows if you have what is called an “internal locus of control,” so you believe that you influence your destiny, then you tend to do better and recover more fully in a lot of situations. If on the other hand, you feel like, generally speaking, you’re kind of at the mercy of faith and you’re sort of in the more passive victim role in your life, just day-to-day, then that can be problematic because you’ll be less likely to take action and can have trouble recovering. You can’t say 100 percent for every situation but you do see that those trends tend to play into it. The more you feel like you’re in control of your destiny and the more confidence you have in your ability to affect change, the better you actually do. It’s very much a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Interviewer: So are there any simple ways that we can train our fear response? Any reading exercises we can do or anything like that?

Ripley: You know, it’s amazing, there are simple things you can do that are taught to first responders and elite military units and it’s basically not that different from yoga. Anything you can do to ramp down that fear response so that it doesn’t overwhelm your ability to think, then that will help. We know that the most effective subconscious brain is through breathing. So controlled breathing, where for example you breathe in for four counts and hold for four counts, release for four counts, hold for four counts and repeat over and over and over again whenever you’re under stress, it could be mild stress. It’s something that I now practice all the time, when you’re in traffic and so forth. This is the kind of thing that’s taught to SWAT teams and Navy Seals and you know it sounds sort of silly and squishy but it is extremely effective in helping you control the physiological stress.

Narrator: Thank you for tuning into today’s episode. For more information about the American Public Health Association, visit www.apha.org and for more information about Get Ready campaign, visit www.getreadyforflu.org. Tune into Part 2 of today’s podcast, Amanda Ripley’s The Unthinkable, for more information on how to get her book.

Interview conducted March 2009 by Teddi Dineley Johnson, The Nation’s Health, APHA

To learn more about APHA’s Get Ready campaign, visit www.getreadyforflu.org

Return to the Get Ready Report podcast home page