Survival: Human behavior in times of crisis

It’s one of those days everyone can say, “I remember where I was when it happened…” Even those who were children at the time can at least remember their parent’s fear or the excited chatter of some huge plane crash in New York City spreading like wildfire through the school yard. And even now, 10 years later, that day still remains engrained in our memories as if it happened only yesterday.

The days following September 11, 2001, were chaotic to say the least. Stories of heartache and heartbreaks came through the rubble as more and more bodies were pulled out of the debris.

Images of sobbing mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and friends carrying signs advertising a lost one flooded every news channel. For days, we were bombarded with these images of despair, with a few shimmering glimpses of hope when some lucky survivor was pulled for the mess that was the Twin Towers. The final survivor was pulled out on September 12th, just after noon that day.

Her name was Genelle Guzman-McMillan and no one could tell you how she managed to survive pinned under concrete and steel for nearly 27 hours.

McMillan was a Port Authority secretary who had started her job a mere nine months earlier. She has no training or knowledge about survival or what to do if she were to be nearly crushed by tons of debris. And yet, she pulled through unlike thousands of others who perished that day and the days following.

Survival is more than just the actions you take, and almost any survival expert will tell you that above all else you need to have a positive attitude and the will to live. When a person is initially thrown into a survival situation, our body begins to protect itself against certain threats that come with the stressors they are surrounded by. The “fight or flight” instinct kicks in and the body takes action to help us physically survive.

Stored fats are released by the liver for extra energy, breathing increases so the brain gets more oxygen, muscles begin to tense to prepare for action, the blood clotting mechanism kicks in to help stop bleeding, and all the senses heighten.

Going into Incredible Hulk mode sounds like the best way to make through a tough situation, especially if that situation includes being trapped under steel and concrete, but it actually can hinder you from making smart decisions.

The “fight or flight” instinct takes away the ability to observe things around you, which is a key factor in any survival situation. But the will to live and determination to survive can turn that around and actually help you more than massive amounts of adrenaline. By slowing your brain down, and taking yourself out of the fight or flight mode and replacing it with positive thoughts about making it out alive, you’re opening up your brain to global thinking which promotes innovation and creative factors.

But it isn’t that easy to stay positive in survival situations, especially when there isn’t much that you can do to make it better for yourself. However, there are ways to amp up the positive vibes in any situation.

“I was just seeing my daughter’s face,” McMillan says about her time buried in the rubble.

Thinking about outside factors, like family or home, can help drive a person to survive. The positive thought process reverses the toll stress takes on your body in these kinds of circumstances, and actually helps to conserve precious energy. This kind of thinking can be a burden too, depending on how thinking about these outside forces affects your morale. In dire cases, it can work against you, sending you into a sort of depression which will cause you to lose hope.

So, how can you keep the positive feelings going even when it seems there is no way out? There are a few things you can do. It’s important to keep busy.

For McMillan there wasn’t a lot she could do besides think to herself. She began to mull over past life choices, like essentially abandoning her religion. While she was stuck, she began to think these things over and found a new source of hope and positive thinking by praying to God.
It’s also important reassure yourself of your survival and address any negative emotions that crop up in such dire situations. By pushing the negative out and forcing yourself to focus only on the good things, you are one step closer to making it out alright.

Finally, it’s important not to blame yourself for what has happened, or why you survived while others may have not. McMillan couldn’t tell you why she survived, but she came out with very little physical damage.

“I don’t like to talk about it that much,” she says. “I don’t have the answers why I am spared. All I know is that it was for a reason.”

Maybe it was, and maybe it wasn’t, but the fact still remains that somehow, through the rubble and dust, she made it out okay.

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