Crisis and Kindness In Action

Crisis and Kindness In Action

July 12, 2017

Sending huge love to those in my beautiful province of BC. It’s on fire. People are being evacuated, it’s devastating, and kindness is flooding in.

Times like these always makes me wonder about our relationship with kindness and disaster. For the most par, people just seem to step up and help. And it’s the only time media seems to let the “good stuff” hit the news at a higher rate than the “bad stuff”.  We are truly at our best at times like this.

So, why do we step up and open our homes and hearts in times of tragedy? Why are we able to ignore race, socioeconomic status, gender, age, and sexual orientation when we are faced with hurricanes, 9/11’s, and other disasters; but we cannot seem to do that on a daily basis?

In a study by Heinrich and Dawan, it was found that when men were put under stress and then asked to do a task, they were more cooperative and inclined to share than those not under stress; yet their decision-making ability was not compromised by the stress.

Do we connect through kindness because we have a need for social connection? Stress causes vulnerability and a loss of control, so the need for connection increases. This connection offsets our exposure. In times of death, divorce, financial crisis, and yes, natural disasters, we tend to look for comfort when we feel like we are exposed. We hear of heroes, who run into burning buildings or take a bullet for a fellow soldier. There is a selflessness that emerges.

Does our response change depending on our proximity to the crisis? If we are in it, can we be as kind or does survival take over? If we are a bystander, is it easier to step up and be kind?

When looking at our experience in crisis, Amanda Ripley explains in her book The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes–And Why, that there are three steps we move through in, what she refers to as, a survival arc.

Denial – we try to create normal. We don’t leave our homes that are in the line of fire and when we do leave we bring the oddest items and leave important ones behind because we don’t really believe it’s happening. We try to cling to the normalcy we are hoping for.

Deliberation – when our bodies respond to the fear and we have a hard time doing simple tasks.

The Decisive Moment –  when people freeze and just don’t save themselves… like watching a tsunami approach and not running away.

Ripley also lists common responses to crisis, which can be silence or laughter; procrastination; no panic; tunnel vision; arrogance; body (physiological) changes; abandoning body functions; disassociation; paralysis; and heroism.

Does this survival arc hold true when we know the people we are in crisis with? Do we pass through these stages or responses faster if we are in community or when we are alone? Or, maybe this explains why we can respond with kindness in situations more easily when we are not directly in them and are not experiencing this survival arc ourselves. Or maybe it’s because kindness is said to reduce stress.

CBS news article quoted study author Emily Ansell, assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine:

Helping behaviors seemed to buffer the negative effects of stress on a person’s well-being, the authors found. Those who reported performing more acts of kindness showed no dips in positive emotion or mental health. And they had lower increases in negative emotion in response to high daily stress.

People who reported lower-than-usual helping behaviors also reported lower positive emotion and higher negative emotion in response to high daily stress.

Maybe our Darwin motive is to make things easier for us to handle and has nothing to do with actually helping other people? So, the very act of showing kindness increases our survival. Or maybe it’s not just about our own survival but humanity’s survival.

Whatever the reason is for kindness in crisis, I encourage you to embrace it. It matters. It matters to those in crisis, you and the consciousness of the world. When kindness is in the air everyone wins.

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