How Your Brain May Work Against You in a Crisis

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Written by Bernie Carr

Think for a moment what you would do in the following situations:

  • A fire breaks out in your building: fire alarms start blaring non-stop and you smell smoke nearby
  • You hear the sound of gunfire while shopping

What you do next may determine your safety. But just when you need to act the most, your mind may not act in your own best interest.


One possible reaction to a high stress situation is complete panic. Panic can be dangerous if it leads you to take rash actions that lead to danger instead of away from it. To control panic, control your breath: inhale through your nose, exhale through your mouth and hold. This reduces your heart rate and clear your head. Once you calm down you are able to make more rational decisions.

Normalcy bias

Normalcy bias is a mental state that causes people to underestimate the possibility that a disaster is happening all around it. Other terms for normalcy bias include “the ostrich effect,” “analysis paralysis,” or “normality bias.” It is the mechanism wherein our brains insist “Everything is okay!” when it’s really not.

Some examples:

Thousand of people who lived in the path of Hurricane Katrina refused to evacuate even when authorities are telling them they were in the path of a monster hurricane. People have a belief ingrained in their head that everything will always go the same as it always has, so they are unable to comprehend danger.

According to researchers who studied behaviors during 9-11 people actually took the time to turn off their computers, chat with colleagues for confirmation before trying to evacuate. It took around six minutes of inaction before seeking to escape down the stairwell.

While in the midst of a global pandemic, many people choose to attend crowded events in spite of the risk of exposure to COVID-19, and possibly spreading it to their loved ones.

People assume that something terrible that never happened before can never happen to them. Because of the inability to face the reality of a disaster, the person with normalcy bias is unable to prepare for a disaster before it happens. It is a coping mechanism that can have dire results. Much like an ostrich that buries its head in the sand, a person experiencing it will refuse to see what’s happening right before their eyes. In short, normalcy bias is a form of denial.

Seeking social proof

Another common reaction in the face of disaster is to seek social proof. Social proof is a psychological state that happens when a person is not sure what to do. People will look to others to validate what they should do. They automatically assume the other people must know more than they do and therefore they should follow others’ lead.

The 10-80-10 principle

I read somewhere that in a crisis, 10% of the people will panic or freak out and make the situation worse, 80% of people will do nothing and wait for someone to tell them what to do, and 10% will take action and try to improve their situation.

We’d all like to be in that 10% that acts promptly and calmly. To do that we need to take a few steps.

How to train your brain to respond appropriately

Mental exercises

Think about various scenarios and how you would react to them. Don’t stress out and get mentally exhausted. Whenever I watch disaster movies such as The Day After Tomorrow, Independence Day or even zombie movies like Train to Busan, I imagine myself in the characters’ shoes and how I might react if I were placed in such a dangerous situation. Or, in normal situations, imagine various scenarios such as “What would I do if…

  • You are walking to your car and you notice someone following you.
  • There is shooting in the mall where you happen to be shopping
  • A thief breaks into the back door of your home and you are in your bedroom.
  • A wildfire is threatening your home

Be in the moment

Be aware of what’s going on around you and what can potentially happen at any time. So many people go about their days on automatic mode, buried in their phones and not aware of their surroundings. We are constantly multi-tasking, planning what need to do and live several hours into the future. I am also guilty of this and constantly have to pull myself back into the present time.

Make a plan

Make concrete plans on what you would do in certain types of disasters.

Do you have a plan on what events would cause you to evacuate your home– fire, flood? Do you have flood insurance? How about an escape route out of the city? Do you have an emergency kit in your car in case you get stranded somewhere?

Being prepared can help you survive in a disaster even if your brain initially works against you. Communicate your plan with the rest of the family so everyone is aware.

Conduct drills

Fire is one of the most common threats that can befall anyone yet people rarely conduct fire drills in their own home.

We occasionally conduct drills on what to do in case someone breaks into our home. Where do you run to? Do you have a weapon?

What if a tornado or earthquake happens? Where are the safest spots in your home or workplace? These are all things to consider before anything happens.

Get some training

It also would be a great benefit to get some training in CPR and basic first aid. If you own a firearm get training on safety and accuracy. Or get self-defense training so you can protect yourself and escape.

Trust your gut

If you have a feeling that something is not right, listen to your gut. All too often, people talk themselves out of taking action and listening to their inner voice. Don’t be afraid of looking foolish or over-reacting if your gut is screaming at you to get away from something.

Plan your decisions

Don’t be afraid of making up your mind on what you would do in certain situations. Keep kids home from school if you are not comfortable sending them out when there is a hurricane warning. Take the day off from work if you feel an illness coming on instead of forcing yourself to suffer through it. Trust that you know what’s best for yourself and your family regardless of what you feel pressured to do.

Reduce your reliance on electronics

I enjoy my cell phone as much as anyone but I have to admit it does contribute to laziness. When we used to memorize phone numbers and addresses, we now rely on the phone to store it for us. But there may come a time when the phone is not there for you.

Being constantly looking at the phone also reduces our situational awareness – how can you be aware of your surroundings when you are busy looking at your phone? Put limits on yourself and on your kids on how much time you’re playing with the phone, using the computer or watching TV and take the time to do real world activities.

The final word

Being prepared mentally can help your brain react appropriately in the event of a disaster. You CAN train your brain to recognize danger and make sound decisions so it works with you instead of against you in an emergency.

Here is the video version of this article:

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About the author:

Bernie Carr is the founder of Apartment Prepper. She has written several books including the best-selling Prepper’s Pocket Guide, Jake and Miller’s Big Adventure, The Penny-Pinching Prepper and How to Prepare for Most Emergencies on a $50 a Month Budget. Her work appears in sites such as the Allstate Blog and, as well as print magazines such as Backwoods Survival Guide and Prepper Survival Guide. She has been featured in national publications such as Fox Business and Popular Mechanics. Learn more about Bernie here.

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