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

crisis ahead, storm clouds
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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.

What’s your takeaway?

Is there anything else you would add to this? Are you practicing your drills and evacuations? What tips or advice do you have for someone on avoiding panic when a crisis hits? Let us know in the comments.

About Chloe Morgan

Chloe Morgan grew up living with a tight budget. In her late teens and early 20’s all the lessons she’d learned started to slip, like it does for many college-age students on their own for the first time, and with their first credit card. As she’s gotten older, she’s started to deal with the repercussions and has taken on a frugal way of living, keeping her costs low, as she pays off debt and saves for her future. Chloe lives in Northern Ontario, Canada, with her cute dog, Rhea.

Chloe Morgan

Chloe Morgan

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  • Great summary! ‘The Unthinkable’ by Amanda Ripley is another source for in-depth discussion of how/why people respond & survive emergency situations. I needed to read this reminder!

  • Although mostly true, different people process information and situations differently. There is no, “one size fits all” and this is without training them in a certain response.
    No civilian was trained for 9/11, yet we see different responses, some fled the area, some went home, some helped others and some followed orders to go back to work. Beware putting people’s responses into boxes. That is what the Government does. Which accounts for why so many government programs are so ineffective.

    Another problem is in the Training (think conditioning) that you are receiving or doing.
    For example the Doctors were trained to believe the CDC and the medical community. So they bought into all of the CDC and other health organizations lies.
    Like those on masking up, social distancing, the “vaccine”( that was not a vaccine), treatments for Covid that were more likely to kill, than help patents.
    They are supposedly trained to think things through, as many diseases produce the same or similar symptoms. Not to just guess what you have or to blindly administer drugs without considering the consequences or side effects.
    However their training to believe in the medical authorities, caused most of them to blindly follow their rules, without question.

    Oversimplification of things is common. If you are to succeed you need to adapt and overcome, relying on your Training can be good or it can get you killed. Remember “one size”(or in this case, “training”) does not fit all scenarios.
    So train yourself to think in a crises and not just react or just blindly follow your training. For some people this would be hard. For others it is not.

    Some people freeze under pressure, some people think, (at the speed of light), through all the possible actions and their outcomes in mere seconds. Others just follow their training to whatever outcome it produces, good or bad, (Which is really just another form of being a sheep).
    Which one do you want to be?

    • have a spouse that reacts to crisis with anger! inflames and upsets animals and people around him, including me, I have to live with it! thats why I dont tell him about any health problems, or things I can take care of myself. even seeing damage we had from hurricane, he went off! what to do about that kind of person?

      • Ah, the Chicken Little reaction! Lol, I understand completely. It is his coping mechanism to something he can’t control. Therefore we must be in control, it’s exhausting. Do what you can & be the voice/action of reason. It would be nice to have another set of ears, arms, legs & eyes in a crisis situation but that isn’t always feasible for some. 😉

        • thanks Jen, think you hit the nail on the head, yes, he wants to control everything including me (fat chance), and is a micro manager, burns my behind…hate it! good to know someone else understands….

    • Well, I for one want a doctor, nurse, EMT trained to perform a medical procedure on me.
      I want a firefighter trained in how to use his equipment.
      I want a Marine trained how to fire their firearm.
      Get as much training, learning as you can. It will get you that much further ahead and prepared.

  • We have a saying in the Marines, “Train as you fight, fight as you train.”
    Of course, we had to get creative to change things up to prevent getting what we called 2D or flat.
    That is where I came in. I was tasked to find new and creative ways to force the Marines to think differently, approach a problem set outside of the box to meet the objective.
    On the battlefield we tend to think in our version of 3D. That would be the horizon or even Over The Horizon (OTH). Vertical or Altitude. And depth or distance. What we pushed for Marines to also consider 4D. Take the first 3D then the 4th, Time.
    On the battlefield, in maneuver warfare, the one who can get to the objective or react in the shortest time is the one that wins.
    How does that apply to us preppers?
    We need to recognize what we know, what we think we know, what we dont know and act accordingly.
    In some cases, the action is immediate. A MZB took a shot at me and I returned fire.
    In others, we may act but the results may be days or weeks or months. Like gardening. Or raising large livestock.
    One of the things I learned from the Marines was the OODA Loop. Observe, Orientate, Decide, Act. Then repeat in a loop as your course of action reflects the results.
    There is additional planning that goes into your course of actions that have to be addressed, not just a tactical one but a logistic one.

  • The more you prepare right now for many “WHAT IF’s, the less stress in a crisis you will feel. Like “ho hum, I Got this.” Also right now instead of spending money on entertainment, spend your time organizing, cleaning out your garage, selling off items you no longer use, clean out your tool boxes, organize all your tools, all your supplies, and you would be amazed all the things you lost over time, re-appear…. and when a crisis hits, you know exactly where that useful tool is to get the job done as you smile. Right now collect lots of extra car parts, wind shield wipers to oil and filters, brake pads, fan belts, serpentine belts, extra 30 gallons of gas, and stabilizer, tires for your vehicle type. Get this all now in relatively peaceful times, it may be too late later on, in a crisis when it may be dangerous to leave you house seeking out these parts or preps. And it may be months to get these simple parts if you can even find them and at inflates prices. Prepare and collect these items now, and feel at ease in a crisis. The unprepared will feel helpless and in despare and depressed, and desperate. Stay away from the unprepared. And last Flock your Gear!!! Look that one up.

  • One advantage to having an extensive EMS and Medical background, is you learn very early on how to deal with crisis situations. Those who develop the correct strategies continue on. Those who don’t end up leaving the field or moving to support areas away from patient care.
    You learn to
    Implement and
    Evaluate, and you learn to to do those four steps subconsciously.
    Though EMS focuses on medical crises, those same four steps of Assessing, Prioritizing, Implementing and Evaluating can apply to the other crises we’ll face in the SHTF scenarios we’ll face in the coming years.
    If you Assess what’s coming your way, Prioritize what’s needed to conquer/control the threat you’re facing. Implement effective strategies to the threat. Evaluate whether your Assessment, Prioritization, and Implementation are working to counter/defeat/avoid the threat(s), you should be successful.
    The last thing one needs to develop is the ability to compartmentalize or suppress your natural response to horrible things. Learn to keep it separate from your Assesment, Prioritization, Impementstion and Evaluation. Later, when the crisis is passed, you can weep, scream and rage away from anyone with you, but during a crisis, weeping, screaming and raging only prevents and hinders your abilities, and if you’re the leader of the group, it only demoralized others.

  • You Need More Than Food to Survive

    In the event of a long-term disaster, there are non-food essentials that can be vital to your survival and well-being. Make certain you have these 50 non-food stockpile essentials. Sign up for your FREE report and get prepared.

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