Psychologically Speaking: When disasters become disastrous

While you may not think to prepare ahead for an emergency, you may someday need to respond to one.

Ambulance 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Ambulance 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
While you may not think to prepare ahead for an emergency, you may someday need to respond to one. In such uncertain times, no one knows what disaster lurks around the corner. Whether an earthquake, fire or terror attack, what you do today can help prepare you both physically and emotionally for tomorrow. If you become easily confused, anxious, take longer to respond or to recover after an incident, it is especially important for you to know what to do ahead of time to prevent a tragedy and feel reassured that you've done all you can. Your response may save your life and that of others. A crisis is characterized by a disruption in routine and uncertainty with respect to future. Coping is dependent on how well you personally respond to stress. The more prepared and informed you are, the calmer and more confidently you'll respond and the less vulnerable you'll feel. Step one: Identify your needs in advance of any emergency. Answer these questions as part of the first step of your personalized emergency action plan or PEAP. How prepared are you? Do you freeze and have difficulty responding, or take things seriously yet stay calm? Do you panic or inappropriately ignore events going on around you? Think about how you've handled past events. What helped you cope? Did you talk with someone or to yourself, breathe calmly, pray and take charge? If these resources worked before, they'll likely help you again. How quickly did you react, how well did you recover? If you could change your past behavior, what would you do differently? What are your personal challenges? Do you have physical limitations, mobility, coordination, visual or hearing difficulties making it harder to receive and follow instructions during an emergency or feel in control afterward? Do you live alone? Does family live nearby? Do you have easy access to a computer? Would you be socially isolated and without help for longer than you'd like? What are your health, communication, safety and transportation concerns? What personal papers, phone numbers, health information, food, drinks, medication and emergency supplies would you pack, assuming you may be without anything for at least three days? Where will you store them? If you need to evacuate or if you remain in your safe space, what should you take? The time difference between first collecting valuables and important memorabilia and picking up one bag with everything in it can be the difference between life and death. What, where and how do you get to safe places both in your home and outside? Having an easy and safe evacuation plan which ensures assistance from family or community services, along with adequate food, water and medical care can give you tremendous peace of mind. Step two: Practice how to actually respond in an emergency. Like repetitive drills as a child, you may have learned that responding by rote helps ensure that you (and your body) will "know" what to do in a crisis. If you know what to do and you do it more or less automatically, there is less chance that you will panic and more chance to do the right thing without thinking twice. As you may be without light, telephones or an elevator, this means not just knowing that there are a lot of steps to the exit, but actually having walked down 46 steps with your hand on the wall and with your eyes closed to simulate darkness. Being psychologically prepared for an emergency requires so little. Make your PEAP, have a backup plan for getting out of your home and take with you an emergency kit that contains enough supplies for three days. Choose a local meeting place as well as a predetermined person, living well outside your immediate danger area, whom each family member can contact about their whereabouts. Review all information, practice your plan, and update it yearly. Sound simple? Unless you sit down with your loved ones and plan it today, it won't happen. If you won't do this now, ask yourself why. The difference between an emergency and a disaster depends primarily on your ability to cope. By expecting the unexpected and planning for it, you'll know what to do, feel more in control and recover faster. The writer is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra'anana.