People often think they’ll keep it together in a disaster. Power fantasies typically revolve around that. People go through all the ways where they can be the heroes or rational ones. In my experience, though, that’s not how things usually go. You never know who’s going to cry on you or hold steady. You might think it’s the cocky ones who will be okay, or maybe the ’strong, silent’ ones. But you don’t really know until you’re in the situation, which, as you might surmise, often is too late.
There was a recent Cracked.com article called “5 Beliefs About Surviving a Disaster (That Can Kill You)” (link). I loved Cracked, as most know. Normally I just share the link and move on, but this one I actually had some personal experience with, so I wanted to indirectly flout how awesome I am by giving some commentary to the whole mess. Because, blog.
So, *ahem*, away we go.
The article breaks down some good examples of how movies, our egos and actual biology tend to royally mess with our abilities to rationally react and survive extreme situations. From higher brain functions shutting down in the face of the ‘fight or flight’ reflex (link), to movies giving us the idea that things will go a certain way (link), we are generally screwed in regards to our fantasies of averting or thriving in disastrous circumstances. It’s why when disasters actually happen (or even when encountering a jarring situation like running into a celebrity), most of us are reduced to quivering, whimpering mutes.
Two points from the article in particular: “Our brains won’t work the way we think they will” and “When our brains are working, they can make things worse” are particularly telling for people who have been through mildly to severely life-threatening situations.
Namely, people aren’t rational in extreme situations. They do crazy things and have crazy ideas. The body goes through intense and bizarre chemical and physiological changes in efforts to survive. In the article, they cite instances where hypothermic people try and take their clothes off because they feel hot, or how panicking scuba divers might take their regulators out of their mouths in order to try and breathe more easily.
I can attest to that last one.
I was diving down in the Galapagos Islands a couple of years ago. I was having trouble sinking (exhaling every ounce of air in my lungs and kicking to get below the water). I kept bobbing up to the surface with each breath from my tank. Well, I did finally make it down to the sea floor, but at that point I was hyperventilating. The constant inhaling and exhaling overtaxed my regulator. That meant it wasn’t giving me enough air, which compounded the problem. It felt like I had just sprinted 400 meters and I was breathing through a towel. Panic began to set in. I couldn’t breathe. Everything in me screamed to rip out my mouthpiece and gasp for air…while 50 feet under water. That wouldn’t have been optimal.
Spoiler alert, I survived. I was able to calm myself down and push through the overwhelming fear.
Now I’m a billion miles from being some Matrix Neo or Jason Bourne type. However, I have been in fights. I have had some good beat downs. I know the exhaustion, the clumsiness, the pain, the adrenaline rush, the heightening of the senses. I also trained for and went to war–even had a couple of moments while on mission where I wasn’t sure how things were going to turn out.
I did well in those times. I was steady as a stone.
For the fun that the Cracked article pokes at people in dire circumstances, there is hope to keep one’s head. Even when faced with overwhelming and terrifying circumstances, the human spirit is pretty resilient. It takes a quiet ego and some exercises to keep from panicking, but people can overcome quite a lot.
Also helped that I was cool with the baby Jesus.