From man-made catastrophes like 9-11; to the natural devastation seen in earthquakes, tsunamis and, of course, hurricane Katrina; to disasters of fate like plane crashes and wild fires -- chances appear alarmingly high that somewhere, sometime, somehow, your life may be touched by a crisis.
How would you react if it happened? Do you have what it takes to not only survive disaster but perhaps even lead others out of danger?
By Kathryn Drury
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If you're pretty sure you'd do OK, you're not alone. Disaster expert Anie Kalayjian says research shows most folks believe they have what it takes to survive a crisis.
"We often fantasize about what we would do or how we would act, and we often feel positive about our ability to handle a crisis when it occurs, says Kalayjian, a professor at Fordham University and founder of MeaningfulWorld.com.
Unfortunately, Kalayjian says, research shows people often don't react as well as they think they will.
"In at least one study, where people were asked to write down how they would react in a fire, follow-up showed that when a fire actually did occur, hardly anyone did what they thought they would do," says Kalayjian.
Most, she says, panicked and were far more excitable than they predicted.
Lehigh University psychologist Nick Ladany, PhD, says he's not surprised. "It can be very difficult to predict how we will react in a crisis situation. We would all like to think of ourselves as that Hollywood hero or heroine who saves the day, but in reality that's more often the exception than the rule."
The Crisis Personality: Who Survives Best
Experts say the ability to live in the moment -- and react based strictly on what is present -- is among the most important factors in handling a crisis of any type.
"Being in the moment does not mean being unaware of the consequences of any actions you take; it means you do not have a prejudgment about those consequences," says Kalayjian.
This, she says, keeps you from panicking over what could happen, and keeps a person focused on what is happening.
Likewise, Al Siebert, PhD, says the best survivors are the ones who are able to "read" the new reality rapidly, focus on problem solving, and take practical action -- all within the moment.
"There's a fair amount of flexibility needed -- the personality who can adapt quickly to changes and feel certain about their ability to do so is usually the type that handles a crisis well," says Siebert, author of The Resiliency Advantage and founding director of ResiliencyCenter.com.
Ladany says the ability to keep emotions under control is also key.
"You can't be plagued with ruminative anxiety. You can't agonize about the consequences of a decision. Those who function best in a crisis are those who can be comfortable with ambiguity in a heightened sense," says Ladany.