Mental Responses During Emergencies

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Since elementary school, children are taught how to respond to emergencies like earthquakes and fires. The primary goal of these drills is to help create an easy to remember yet life-saving physical responses in case of a dire situation. Unfortunately, what these drills did not prepare children for what was the correct or safe mental response. Since emergencies can occur in many different situations and environments, how we mentally react in these situations has tremendous impact on our physical response.

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Infographic on How the Mind Responds to Emergencies

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Medical Emergency Facts

911 Calls

In the United States, over 240 million 911 calls are made every year. Over 70 percent of these calls are made from cell phones, and the number continues to increase year after year. The number “911” was developed by AT&T as a public service to improve emergency communications. The first ever 911 emergency call was made on February 16, 1968 in Haleyville, Alabama. On September 11, 2001, so many people made 911 calls at the same time that the local networks crashed.


There are well over 35 million Americans over the age of 65 years, and 1 in 3 will fall at least once a year. Around 50 percent of these elderly citizens require assistance from someone else to get up when they fall. Every single year, over 2.8 million elderly persons are treated in emergency rooms for fall injuries. 1 in 5 falls causes a serious injury, such as broken bones, or a head injury. It is interesting to note that seniors are hospitalized for fall injuries five times more often than any other injury. Every year, a total of $31 billion is spent on treatment of fall injuries (direct medical cost). According to experts, falls are the most common cause of traumatic brain injuries.


Half of all fire-related deaths occur when the fires are reported between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. This is perhaps due to the fact that most people are usually asleep at this time. Three of every five home fires started from the kitchen. Three in five home fire deaths occur in homes with no smoke alarms and homes without a working smoke alarm. In the year 2014, fire departments in the United States responded to 367,500 home fires. These fires caused $6.8 billion in direct damage, 2,745 deaths and $11,825 civilian injuries. Americans who are aged over 65 years are at greatest risk of dying from a fire. On average, seven people die daily in U.S. homes due to fires. It is sad to note that people who are over 80 years old die in fires at a rate three times higher than the rest of the population.

Fight-Or-Flight Response

Homeostasis is a term coined by Walter B. Cannon to describe the maintenance of physiological variables, such as blood glucose and core temperature within acceptable ranges. He described, for the first time, the small changes in adrenal gland secretion that correlate with what he called “fight or flight” responses. He noted that neural activity combine with hormones in the bloodstream to constitute the fight or flight response. When a sudden threat is encountered, the medulla floods the bloodstream with: epinephrine, cortisol, serotonin, dopamine, testosterone, estrogen and norepinephrine. Other physical responses include: increased heart rate, pupils dilate, increased breathing rhythm, stomach clenches and sexual organs wake up. These physical responses ready the body for survival. The body becomes primed with increased strength, heightened awareness and quicker reaction time.

Military And Law Enforcement

Over the last 20 years, military outfits and police departments around the world have participated in dozens of studies on the neurology and psychology of combat panic. As a result, many training programs now focus on being aware of one’s own mental state in dangerous situations and training for situations that cause panic. Researchers have found reasons why police officers and solders panic. First, they don’t know or remember how exactly they are supposed to respond. Secondly, they are not aware of their own impaired decision-making when their adrenaline takes over. Thirdly, they’ve been taking too many shifts, working too many hours and running on adrenaline all the time, and they’ve forgotten how to make calm decisions. Long-term stress takes its toll on the human brain. It makes neural connections that strengthen emotions and help to form factual memories. Stress increases activity in the amygdala, an area of the brain associated with fear and anger. It drains serotonin and dopamine down to levels far below the norm, and it impairs decision-making and cognitive function. Many veterans come home with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is what contributed to the 13 suicides in one marine unit since 2012. This translates to 10 times the suicide rate of average Americans. More than 100 U.S. police officers commit suicide every year. Many cases have to do with combat flashbacks.

Teamwork Response

Teamwork is essential when dealing with emergency situations. Nontechnical skills are an extremely important contributor to positive outcomes during medical emergencies. This is because shared mental models facilitate coordination and team performance. A study of different types of teams has revealed that higher and lower performing teams differ in; information exchange, communication and supportive behavior. Good teamwork can be applied in many different situations to help the response team better handle emergency situations in a team environment. The study further revealed that higher performing teams show more effective information exchange and communication. Team skills are also generic, so they’re highly transferable.

Psychological Traps

Being involved in a life-threatening situation can be terrifying. People under severe stress are not usually able to think clearly, which affects their decisions and reactions. There are a number of psychological traps that people can fall into. Anxiety and worry triggered by preparation is one of them.  This can be dealt with by continuing with the preparations, knowing it’s normal for people to feel worried and panic occasionally. Feelings of futility may cause people to do nothing and this is a big psychological trap. The key to getting out of this trap is to remember that you are not helpless in helping yourself even if you cannot help in a given emergency. Another trap is a false sense of security. You must approach every dangerous situation knowing that it’s real. It’s only then that you can respond to it effectively.

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