Crisis! How Would You Respond?

Four experts explore what it takes to survive a crisis – and offer tips on how to prepare.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
7 min read

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?

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

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."

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

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.

Also important is having a solid value system. Indeed, the more emphasis we put on material goods, experts say, the less likely we are to cope when the threat of losing those goods becomes a reality.

"If the meaning of your life is wrapped around material things, then you will be shattered at the thought of losing everything, which can happen in 10 seconds when disaster strikes," says Kalayjian.

Conversely, if your purpose and meaning in life is greater than your worldly possessions, then she says, you can lose everything and still not lose the key to survival.

"It's a matter of strong will and purposeful will. Niche says if you have a why to live you can live with any how. But you must have a purpose, because that is what can keep you alive," Kalayjian says.

Now, if you're thinking all these survivor qualities are bred into our personality, guess again. All the experts we talked to tell WebMD that the ability to champion a crisis is a learned behavior and not the result of your DNA.

"Although it's probably easier to think that genetics play a big role in the ability to deal with crisis, the data simply doesn't support this notion," says Ladany.

Indeed, experts say the crisis behaviors we exhibit as an adult are frequently rooted in what we learn as children, often causing us to react without even thinking.

"If a child is in a car accident and the entire family becomes hysterical, then the child learns that this is how you react to crisis," says Kalayjian. "At a young age, we don't have a psychological sorting process to reason out that our parents are going overboard."

Experience this kind of family reaction to crisis enough times, she says, and it's almost like having it hardwired into your brain.

"As a child you have no experience, no comparison, no judgment -- so you just think, 'Oh, this is what I am supposed to do in crisis,' and that can lay down the groundwork for how you will react as an adult," says Kalayjian

What also matters: How well you weathered the storm of a previous crisis in your life.

"My 40-some years of research into the nature of life's most resilient survivors shows that experience in coping with and surviving previous emergencies and tragedies is the best preparation for handling new ones," says Siebert.

Indeed, he adds that nothing prepares one for a crisis like a crisis -- even if the two events differ dramatically. "The very act of surviving one crisis helps us survive another," he says.

Maurice Ramirez, DO, relates the concept back to a phenomenon known as "plasticity" -- a desensitizing of sorts that occurs as we are exposed to adversity.

"If you become desensitized to one type of crisis, you will function better in all crisis situations, even if the crisis is different and requires different things from you. Science shows it carries over from one area of life to another," says Ramirez, founding director of the American College of Disaster Medicine and founder of

Conversely, Siebert says, if you're the classic 'drama queen' (or king) with a past that is checkered with emotional outbursts, this will also impact your crisis reaction.

"If you are someone who 'awfulizes' things, focuses intently on losses ... If you have a tendency to act like a victim, these are the kind of characteristics that can keep you from coping with a crisis, and often cause you to make things worse for yourself and for others," says Seibert.

In this respect, looking back to how you reacted in the past -- even to a small crisis within your own family -- will, say experts, give you some clue as to how well you will react in the future.

Regardless of where you fall on the crisis-coping scale, experts say you can take positive steps to help ensure you will function better in any problematic situation, big or small.

"People with all kinds of personalities can develop good skills, strengths, and abilities for coping with disasters, crises, and emergencies. It takes practice and learning, but it can be done," says Siebert.

Kalyajian agrees, "We must definitely encourage people that they can do something at any age to better prepare themselves to deal with crisis. It is somewhat a learned response."

Where do you start? Experts say any type of disaster training program will help train you for any kind of disaster.

"There are deliberate education programs -- disaster life training courses -- that can provide the kind of repetitive, psycho-motor activity that helps enforce good response behaviors. Knowledge is power and practice is what sets it in concrete," says Ramirez.

"Even doing something as simple as taking a first aid course or learning CPR can teach you how it feels to intervene in a crisis situation and give you some extra measure of confidence going into a real crisis -- even if it has nothing to do with CPR," Ladany says.

What can also help? Laying down a few ground rules about what you and your family will do if disaster strikes.

"Every family should have some kind of plan and at least one relative or friend in another state designated as the command central, someone they can each call if they should get separated," says Ramirez. Making sure to always have emergency phone money is also a must.

Also important is preparing yourself emotionally for the inevitability of crisis and accepting the idea that things are going to happen that are out of your control.

"If you can accept the fact that nothing except your breath is under your control, you'll be far less likely to panic during any situation in which control must be surrendered," says Kalayjian.

Lastly, Ladany reminds us that when looking to find a leader during a crisis, never confuse confidence with competence.

"There are plenty of people who sound like they know what they are talking about but in reality couldn't think their way out of an unlocked room," he says.

To better survive any crisis, experts say you should rely on common sense, be flexible and ready to change course in an instant, stay in the moment, and never be afraid to question the plan -- or the planner.