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  • Chloe Morgan

4 Ways People Respond to Crisis Situations and How NOT to Panic


There is no doubt that, at some point in your life, you have experienced or will experience a major crisis. This can be anything from a major natural disaster, to a mass shooting, to getting stuck in your car in the middle of winter for hours on end and not knowing how long you will be there. The moral of the story is that disaster and crisis will most likely find you at some point in your life.


Knowing ahead of time how you, and the people around you, will most likely react can literally mean the difference between life and death for you and your loved ones. After all, isn’t that why we prep? To make sure we can make it through what life throws at us? I know it’s why I do it. A big part of that is mental preparation, and it’s an area that many people overlook.


The CDC and the psychology of a crisis.

The CDC released a document (the latest update back in 2019), about how people respond in a crisis situation and some of the best ways to work through it. The 16-page PDF titled “CERC: Crisis + Emergency Risk Communication” covers 5 main sections.


  • How people process information during a crisis

  • Mental states in a crisis

  • Behaviors in a crisis

  • Negative vicarious rehearsal (a fancy way of saying the people who are experiencing the negative psychological affects, and feel as if they need the same aid as those who actually experienced the crisis.)

  • and addressing psychology in the CERC Rhythm


Regardless of your thoughts about the CDC, there’s some good and applicable information here. If you have the time, I highly recommend reading the whole document. I’ll go over the important bits in this article, though.


How we process information during a crisis

In a crisis situation, we are, in some ways, not functioning at the level we normally do. To expand on this, our brain has a limited capacity for the new information we can receive and fully comprehend. In other words, an emergency isn’t the time to be learning new things. (This is why practicing things like fire drills and where to meet if you get separated is so vitally important.)


Here are the four main things a person is likely to do;


1. Simplify the details

Because there is so much going on and so much we are trying to focus on, it’s hard to fully understand, absorb, and put to use new information. This can look like not hearing the important facts, having a limited capacity to remember new information, and mixing up things like steps or directions that may lead us to safety.


This is the time we are likely to revert to old habits (even if they’re bad ones) or adopt herd mentality. There is a reason that the terms “herd mentality” and “mob mentality” exist. Get enough people together, and throw in a little panic and adrenaline, and many people will follow what they see others doing, even if it’s not how they would typically handle a situation.


How to overcome it: Keep things as simple as possible. Try to break things into as few simple steps as possible. If you know there is a high likely hood of a specific situation, practice drills repeatedly as to what you will do, where you will go, and what needs to happen. It’s the same reason that schools will frequently practice things like fire drills. While a fire probably won’t happen, can you imagine hundreds of kids panicking when they need to evacuate? I know I don’t want to.


2. Denial

When we are first thrown into the chaos of a true disaster or crisis, it can be extremely easy to slip into a state of denial. After all, we may see the ruins of war on TV or read about wildfires or earthquakes in the news, but that kind of thing could never happen to us. Right? Not so much.


Selco has often written about how, at first, many people didn’t truly believe what was going on at the beginning of the Balkan Wars. After all, it’s hard to go from things being relatively normal to your whole life being consumed by something like the upheaval of war.


How to overcome it: Be open and ready to accept hard information. Know that, unfortunately, disaster has the ability to happen at any moment, and often in ways you might not expect. Have sources, like this site and others, who, you know, without a doubt, will provide, real, and credible information about what is truly going on in a situation, and how to move through it.


3. We search for more information

The need for more information often goes hand in hand with denial. We often won’t believe something at first (especially if our first encounter with something is via social media or the internet). So, in an age where countless resources are at our fingertips, we will look for other sources. This can look like searching other news outlets, turning on the TV, calling friends or family, or looking to see if someone in charge has released a statement about a given situation. This is especially true in instances where an evacuation is necessary, either from a building or a town.


As horrible as it is to admit it, when I was in college, the student housing I’d stayed in for my first 3 months had the fire alarm pulled in the middle of the night every 2-3 weeks if not more. The first few times, I evacuated. After all, that’s what you do, right? Well, after my first few times of evacuating and seeing maybe 10% of the tenants out front with me, I stopped evacuating. After all, why would I get up and out of bed in the middle of the night for just another false alarm? While I know Daisy, and probably everyone else reading this, is probably cringing right now, at 18, I wasn’t overly concerned. If it really was an emergency, I’d know. At least, that was overconfident, 18-year-old Chloe told herself.


I do know better now. Heck, back in December, when I was staying in a hotel in downtown Toronto, Canada, with my friend and her two young daughters, and the fire alarm went off at 3 a.m., I was out of bed immediately, grabbing shoes, and winter coats, and we were out the door in under a minute. I like to think I’ve grown since my college days. While it wound up being a false alarm, I would rather be safe than sorry every time.


How to overcome it: Do the safe thing, even if you think it might be an overreaction. I would rather look a little foolish and know I am safe than risk my life or those of my loved ones because I didn’t believe a crisis was actually happening. Sometimes, there isn’t time to wait for a confirmation. Just look at how fast everything can go from fine to the exact opposite in a matter of seconds and minutes.


4. We believe what we first hear

Covid is a great example of this. In the first few months, the information we learned about Covid-19 was not consistent and often all over the place.  At first, many mainstream news outlets said the virus wasn’t much worse than a common cold. People in positions of authority, like Anthony Fauci, outright lied. While some statistics would beg to differ, I still know people who don’t really believe the severity that some people experienced. They still hold onto those first and inaccurate tidbits of information back when we didn’t know what we were dealing with.


New information can be extremely hard to process when tensions and stress are high, and, as is human nature, when we grasp onto what we believe to be true (whether it is or not), we often struggle to let go of that belief.


How to overcome it: Whether we are looking for information to help in a crisis or we are trying to relay that information to others, know that the pertinent details often need to be simple, repeated, specific to the situation, and give concrete steps on how to either resolve or survive the crisis.


Survival is what’s important.

While there is no doubt that surviving a disaster or major crisis can be extremely terrifying and difficult, it’s still possible. There is always a way, and there is always hope. Knowing ahead of time what is likely to happen and how you are likely to respond can literally make the difference between life and death. When you know what to expect, you know how to prepare.


Do your drills, practice your evacuations, and know your meet-up spots. Teach your kids. Learn how to do the hard things and practice until it becomes so second nature that if, and likely when, a disaster occurs in your life, you’ll be that much more prepared to get through it and do the things you need to do. That’s the important thing.

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