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Disaster Recovery and the Kindness of Social Relationships

7 Mar. 2018 Posted by aadams

Randall Kratz, FEI Senior Account Manager

Our brains were created to put our safety first, others second and to do it rapidly – without question of right or wrong, good or bad. It is vital for organizations, and the people in them, to be prepared for crisis situations while understanding how the brain responds. 

As human beings have evolved in response to more complex and sophisticated environments, we’ve developed a higher-level response in the brain’s frontal lobe. The front of our brain, the neocortex, is highly evolved and unique to primates. It houses the pre-frontal lobes of the brain. The pre-frontal cortex regulates so much of what makes us human: Executive-level functioning, higher-order thinking skills, reason, speech, meaning-making, willpower, wisdom, compassion – even kindness.

Although a crisis or critical incident can trigger a fight or flight survival response, it can also produce a collective and communal survival coping response that is compassionate, selfless and kind. A crisis can bring about an altruistic and other-centered response. We put aside life’s trivial anxieties, concerns and self-centered preoccupations to refocus on the well-being of others. In some ways, people act better than they typically might and see the value of more meaningful social connections in everyday life.

As human beings, we have evolved to behave this way. The brain’s stress response system is uniquely designed to benefit from social support. For example, the brain releases the hormone oxytocin in response to a calm word or a gentle touch from those we trust, helping “de-flood” stress hormone levels.

From birth, our parents or caregivers taught and reinforced various levels of this social resiliency; as we grow, our brain’s stress response system remains intricately linked to the healing presence of those who provide comfort or relief. Many studies have demonstrated that strong social support extends life and improves well-being in multiple ways, working primarily through its effects on the stress system.

I recently took part in a critical incident response after a fatal industrial accident took the life of a long-term employee as co-workers looked on. Immediately after, both management and the union set aside their differences for the greater good of the people involved. Everyone worked together to create a safe place for psychological first aid to happen. They displayed an uncommon collective spirit, willing to courageously mourn the loss of a co-worker and friend without pointing the finger or assigning blame. 

During disasters, the people-related systems around us largely determine our fates: The more connections we have and the stronger our bonds, the more likely we are to survive and thrive – not just physically, but emotionally.

Managing and responding to acute stress reactions from workplace disasters immediately – with competent and trustworthy social networks such as managers, human resource professionals, safety departments, employee assistance programs and, last but not least, co-workers and peers – is of great importance. This response will help prevent post-traumatic stress injury from developing later, and these social group interventions can be some of the best medicine
during recovery.

Oftentimes when we face extreme crisis events, our best self is revealed. We have each other’s backs, tackling life’s unforeseen challenges together. Although no one ever wishes for a catastrophe, when one happens, it can be full of unexpected gifts – especially if we share and value each other at work, home or wherever we find ourselves.


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