Resilience: Understanding the 3 Different Responses to Disaster

By Richard Bolstad, used with permission

Psychologists list the three main types of response to disaster as

1) Resilience. People feel bad for a while, but they still manage to get good sleep, to eat healthily, and to plan successfully. They quickly get back to high level functioning in the new situation. This is the response we want to install for the recession.

2) Recovery. For a couple of months, people may be so distressed that they cannot function in their job, and cannot relax. Then, they bounce back.

3) Chronicity. People are so distressed that they cannot relax, cannot function in their job, and do not bounce back.

In disaster situations, these responses do not depend only on the severity of the problem, but on the survivor’s personal coping style.

Furthermore, the percentage of people who respond to a traumatic event by being disabled with chronic PTSD varies from culture to culture. In the research by Schnurr et alia (2004), Japanese ancestry Americans had only 14% of the incidence of PTSD that European ancestry Americans had. Polynesian (in the research, specifically Hawaiian; in many ways the same culture as New Zealand Maori or Samoan) ancestry also reduced PTSD rates to 35% that of other Americans. Resilience is pretty much the core successful human response to disaster that coaching seeks to remedially create. Research also shows that resilience is not a set personality trait so much as a set of actions you can choose to take.

When a traumatic event occurs, a “neural network” is set up in the brain with memories of the event, instructions about possible responses, and an “emergency rating”. If the emergency rating is low enough, a pattern of Resilience occurs, where the person is distressed by the event but able to keep functioning normally. If the rating is high enough then at least for some time a PTSD-style response will occur and the person will have severe difficulty performing normal daily functions. This is because a high emergency rating triggers an alarm in a brain area called the Amygdala.

The aim of the alarm is to ensure that if the emergency recurs, a “panic” response will override conscious thinking and cause the person to act quickly to save their life. You can understand that in a physical disaster, this is a very sensible body response. While this panic response mostly saves lives, occasionally it results in panic being triggered accidentally by sensory stimuli that are themselves not dangerous (like reading the morning newspaper). Even in that case most people will gradually edit the neural network over the next couple of months so that it no longer interferes with everyday functioning, a pattern called Recovery. Some people have a pre-existing thinking style which makes recovery difficult (eg a pattern of constantly checking in case something bad is about to happen again) and they will then continue to have problems long term, a pattern called Chronicity.

Which of the 3 patterns will occur is determined by the pre-existing thinking style and model of the world, previous experience of similar trauma, the severity of the current traumatic events, and the social support available at the time of the current trauma.

We will be exploring the thinking styles and model of the world that literally creates Chronicity, and how to ‘re-code’ memories of traumatic events so that someone no longer experiences chronic distress at a Two Day Resilience Training. Learn more here.

About the Author

I am a qualified Coach (ICF PCC level) with over 16 years of professional experience as a Coach working in both organisational and personal development. I am also a Coach Trainer, the only person able to deliver the practical units of the Master of Arts Neuro Coaching in Australia.