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10 Ways to Train Your Brain to Respond in a Crisis

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How would you rate yourself when responding to crises? Did you know you can train your brain to improve your reactions?

When I first began researching survival and preparedness, I can’t tell you how many hours were spent in shock and panic. I read about the “golden hordes” who would soon, very soon, descend upon my suburban home shooting, stealing, and raping, although not in that particular order.

According to some survivalists, we’re approaching a tipping point at which our world will begin to run out of oil, and we’ll be thankful to have two rocks to rub together to create heat. Then there were tales of a hidden planet, Planet X, on its way to destroy Earth.

In my early prepping years, there were days I wasn’t so sure I even wanted to survive such scenarios. Anyone who has only known security is in for a shock when their normalcy bias begins to struggle with information about these possible scenarios and many others, far more realistic. In this article, I’ll give you some ideas to train your brain and improve your crisis response.

woman aghast over pan on fire on stove, how can she train her brain in responding to crises

Statistics About How People Respond to Crises

Recently I came across these interesting statistics. In a crisis:

As a mom, I realize that my kids can’t afford for me to be part of the 10% that panic or the 80% who do nothing. Parents do not have the luxury of panicking or breaking down in tears when a situation desperately calls for logic and purposeful action.

Picture this situation. You and your children or grandchildren are in the middle of an intense emergency. The young ones are already scared, perhaps even hysterical. They last thing they need is a parent, grandparent, or other loved one who has lost all sense of reason. At that moment, in spite of your own fears, you must be the adult in charge. The options otherwise are not pretty.

So how do you cultivate a mindset capable of handling a major crisis without experiencing it first hand or living in a war zone?

Parents do not have the luxury of panicking or breaking down in tears when a situation desperately calls for logic and purposeful action.

Appropriately Responding to Crises

This really should be number one. You need to decide what group you belong to.

That is, decide that you WILL be in that 10% who takes appropriate action when faced with an emergency or drastic change. That choice fosters a survival mindset.

1. Be situationally aware, always

Do your thinking and planning now. Situational awareness is a foundational skill that takes practice to develop and consistent use to maintain and improve. Make it a habit to ask yourself “What if?” questions. Make it an everyday habit to be observant of the people and activity around you.

If there’s one book I believe every woman, from around age 15 or so, should read, it’s CIA Street Smarts for Women by B.D. Foley. About a third of the way through the book, I realized the book has vital information for my son, too. The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker is another must-read. Both books are life-changing and potentially life-saving.

Ways to practice this

Here’s another fun exercise that you can do when you’re out and about.  Begin inventing stories in your head about the people you see around you. Invent a name for them. What do they do for a living, why are they here right now? Believe it or not, this mental exercise trains your brain to pay even closer attention to details — what are they wearing, who is with them, what clues do you see to enhance this imaginary story? Sounds strange but give it a try.

Take a minute when you get in your car to go anywhere and think about what you will do if you are stuck in your car for several hours, or if you have to walk home from where ever you are going. When you arrive, check for exits and think about what scenarios could happen while you are there and what you would do. It only takes a few moments, but I find that it also lets me enjoy what I am doing. I have prepared my mind for what could happen and this preparation lets me focus on what I am doing instead of worrying.

As you’re practicing situational awareness, teach it to your kids and grandkids. It will heighten their awareness to the goings on around them and, should a dangerous situation arise, they will already be alert and ready. Read this post for how to play the “What if…” game with them for this purpose.

2. Be smart about where you go

This is closely related to situational awareness. When it comes to survival, nothing beats not being at the wrong place at the wrong time. If you’re hearing about mob riots in the local shopping mall, doesn’t it make sense to avoid that mall or even all malls in the area? What if a flu virus is making the rounds in a big way, it makes sense to wash your hands frequently and stay away from big crowds. If that means keeping your kids home for a few days while the virus runs its course, so be it.

This step requires you to really TAKE CHARGE of your life and stand your ground if your actions are questioned. It’s better to round up the kids and leave a park where a group of questionable people has congregated and be on the safe side than to ignore the possibility of danger and end up in a situation you cannot get out of. Don’t ever put your safety or that of your kids in danger to avoid hurting someone’s feelings or looking a little foolish.

3. Take control of electronics

Another one related to situation awareness. Get control of the electronics in your life. I can’t imagine anything that will put your life in danger more quickly than having your face buried in a cell phone or other electronic. And, if that doesn’t describe you, it probably describes someone in your family!

Situational awareness is 100% impossible when your mental focus and all 5 senses are focused on a tiny electronic screen. It’s arguably the opposite of training your brain. Take steps to limit the amount of time you spend in front of screens: TV, computer, cellphone, tablets, etc. for survival reasons alone.

Situational awareness is 100% impossible when your mental focus and all 5 senses are focused on a tiny electronic screen.

4.  Keep learning

Train your brain with…training! Make a list of skills and training that would be valuable for you to learn and set some goals for acquiring it. Schedule it on the calendar and follow through. Here’s an example from my own life of why.

Several years ago I was in a public restroom when I saw an elderly woman standing at the sink with blood streaming from her nose. While I stood there for a second, another woman rushed to her side, holding handfuls of paper towels. She quickly gave the woman instructions for stopping the nose bleed. I was so frustrated with myself for pausing and not doing the same thing. I knew the basics of dealing with nose bleeds but didn’t have much practical experience.

Looking back, I realize that the second woman was probably a nurse and had more medical training than I did. She reacted so fast with a certainty that can only come with training and experience. While processing emergency scenarios and putting your plans and solutions in writing is a great first step, getting practical, hands-on training will ensure those plans happen. You’ll have a much greater level of self-confidence that will communicate itself to everyone around you.

Training ideas

This is the time to take a First Aid/CPR class. If it’s been a while since you took one, take a refresher course. Wilderness First Aid is another excellent class. Teens and adults alike can join Civil Air Patrol and get training of all kinds. My son is a CAP member and has taken a week-long Search and Rescue course and more recently, a week of medical training. This comes at a very, very low cost and there is no commitment to the military whatsoever! Community colleges offer classes related to emergency services and you can even take FEMA classes online. FEMA classes are self-paced and free.

You don’t have to learn them all right now, but you can gather books and materials on the topics so you can learn about them whenever you want (or need) to. Consider printing out anything electronic so you can have the references on hand in case of prolonged power outages or an EMP attack and creating your own Preparedness Binder.

For example, I am an amateur gardener, so I have several gardening reference books on hand. You could create individual binders for cooking, sewing, medical preparedness, homeschooling, woodworking, etc. in addition to one more general Survival Mom binder.

5. Communicate, communicate, communicate

It’s important.  Communicate with your spouse and family about the plans you’re putting into place.


First, should anything ever happen to you, they’ll need to know where the stored food is, how to prepare it, how to purify water, how to take care of illnesses and injuries, and so much more. Remember that training I just mentioned? What you learn and the skills you acquire must be shared with your loved ones. Otherwise, in a crisis, it will be you and you alone trying to manage the whole scene. Why do that to yourself when you can easily teach and train those closest to you?

6. Create a written plan for responding to crises

For specific crises, such as a house fire or job loss or if you are a woman who must (chooses to) live alone in a car, put your plan in writing and, if possible, actually practice the actions that will keep everyone safe. In the case of a financial crisis, this article is a gold mine of suggestions, but writing out a step-by-step plan is also very helpful. What bills must be paid first? What expenses can be eliminated or drastically cut? If cell phones are on the chopping block, where can you get a super-cheap alternative for emergency calls only? What super-frugal recipes can you begin to learn in advance?

Putting your ideas in writing trains your brain to focus on solutions to a problem and not just the problem itself. Then, if the crisis really does happen, you will have already processed the solutions and, if panic sets in, the written plans will help you move forward and not become frozen with fear.

Putting your ideas in writing trains your brain to focus on solutions to a problem and not just the problem itself.

Ideas for plans for responding to crises

What other plans might you want to put in writing? How about one or all of these:

7. Learn to improvise

You won’t always have the right tool for the job. Can you improvise when responding to crises?

Instead of asking where you can find a shovel to dig a hole, ask what things you can use to dig a hole. Before you go to bed tonight, ask yourself what you would do if disaster struck tonight with just what you have in the house.

What could you use to substitute for the things you haven’t bought yet? Do you have alternatives for cleaning? What options do you have for cooking?

How creative could you get with what you have?

8. Develop muscle memory

Bug out now and see how you do. Or, for something more low-key, go on an impromptu picnic to see how well you can do with what you have on hand. I did this once with a friend and our children. We brought peaches, but forgot the knife to cut it up. What to do? The children could take turns taking bites or we could use a pocketknife from my purse. We needed to sanitize it, so we put some hand sanitizer on it and wiped it down with a baby wipe.

We improvised and came up with a solution. You can train your brain to improvise by practicing scenarios. You can do this with family fire drills, tornado drills, intruder drills, etc. Your brain will remember the actions you take and then, if a real emergency happens, you can react quicker.

9. Avoid complacency

It’s human nature to get complacent. Once you think you are fully prepared, you may stop thinking and planning. However, being prepared is a lifestyle, not a checklist. You can always be more prepared. A good way to not get complacent is to pick a topic every month to work on.

Check your food storage one month – is it stored correctly? Will you actually eat it? Does anything need to be replaced? Do you like your inventory system?

Another month, update your Grab-n-Go Binder – walk through your house and look through your computer files to see if there is anything else to add that you wouldn’t want to be without.

Another month, you can sort through your ammo, clean your firearms and make sure they are in good working order. When was the last time you practiced firing them at the range?

Train your brain to remember that there is always something to do to be prepared. Don’t forget the more mundane tasks like reducing clutter and keeping on top of your finances! The more you stay on top of, the easier it is to enjoy day-to-day life.

. . . being prepared is a lifestyle, not a checklist. You can always be more prepared.

10. Practice breath training

A very small, but highly practical skill for responding to crises is something I call “survival breathing,” explained in detail here. I’ve taught it to my kids and practice it with them, especially when they are facing a highly stressful event, like taking the SAT test for college or getting ready to go up to bat in a competitive baseball game.

This breathing technique does something amazing to your brain, which, after all, is where all your reactions begin. With practice, you can train your brain to do this automatically when needed.

Final Thoughts on Responding to Crises

When you think about the 10% who respond correctly and quickly to a crisis, it’s important to not become overly critical of yourself. After all, even seasoned law enforcement officers often make mistakes in judgment when both adrenaline and emotions are high. However, in those moments, it may also be impossible to sit down, take a minute or two for some deep breathing, and then taking action. That may not be an option if lives are in danger.

Begin using and practicing these 10 ideas on a daily basis. You really can train your mind and body to react when a crisis hits.

How do you train your brain for responding to crises?

Originally published December 31, 2016; updated and revised by Team Survival Mom.

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I’m the original Survival Mom and for more than 11 years, I’ve been helping moms worry less and enjoy their homes and families more with my commonsense prepping advice.

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