What Makes People Particularly Resilient in Major Crises

Last summer, a devastating flood hit western Germany. For the residents of the Ahr Valley, it was the worst disaster since World War II. Resilience expert Karsten Drath was among the thousands of volunteers who lent a hand in the weeks and months that followed. In twelve points, he summarizes which coping strategies proved effective among those affected by the flood disaster.

In the night from July 14 to 15, 2021, a devastating flood disaster hit large areas of Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia after extreme storms. The Ahr Valley was particularly badly affected. Thousands lost everything that was important to them overnight: loved ones, belongings, the roof over their heads and their professional livelihood. More than a year later, people in the Ahr Valley are still busy rebuilding their homes. While some have not lost heart and are gradually managing to get back on their feet, others are sometimes severely traumatized, depressed and can hardly find the necessary strength to cope with the challenges they face.


Key competence for Dealing with Crises

The flood in the Ahr Valley and its consequences show once again that resilience is not one, but rather the central key competence when it comes to dealing with crises that threaten one's existence. This refers to the ability to deal constructively with difficulties and challenges, to remain capable of acting and, in the best case scenario, to even emerge strengthened from it all. Among those affected in the Ahr Valley who got back on their feet more quickly after the flood, very specific coping strategies can be identified. From this, one can gain valuable insights into which behaviors to cultivate in order to strengthen one's own resilience so that one is better equipped for upcoming challenges and times of crisis. In the following, I elaborate on twelve behaviors.

1. Make Contact

When we are feeling bad, many people tend to withdraw at first. Although this behavior is understandable, it is not useful. It is more conducive to resilience if one keeps the impulse to withdraw in check and instead makes contact with others who are affected.

" More than a year later, people in the Ahr Valley are still working on rebuilding their homes. "

2. Acceptance of the Crisis

As trivial as it sounds, it is important to actually name a crisis as such and to act accordingly. Now it's no longer about how things look within your own four walls and what the neighbors think. It's about accepting that you've lost a lot, that you're suffering and that things are bad for you right now.

„Unfortunately, it's going to be years before we get back to a normal life, and to get through that, it's important to know that we're not alone.“

Flood Victim from the Ahr Valley

Coaching for NGOs

After Karsten Drath and his team had helped out as volunteers in the Ahr Valley after the flood disaster, they decided to support those affected as well as aid organizations with resilience coaching. This subsequently gave rise to the Cosmikk Foundation, which aims to provide NGOs and social businesses with access to professional coaching. In addition to its initiative in the Ahr Valley, the Cosmikk Foundation currently also supports refugess from the Ukraine war, among others.


3. Learn to Ask for Help

Efficiency is very important in our society. We are used to having everything under control and being able to live our lives independently. In the face of a natural disaster, one person alone can't do much. Now we have to keep our own pride and sense of shame in check and let other people help us.

" In the face of a natural disaster, one person alone can't do much. "


4. Grieve and Talk About It

It takes a long time to process pain, grief and loss. Much longer than most people think, and often longer than their own patience will last. It helps if you consciously and purposefully open up to people whom you can trust and who mean well with you. This should happen regularly. Even if at some point you can no longer hear your own story, it helps your soul to heal if you share it with empathetic people.


5. What Can I Influence?

The people from the Ahr Valley have suffered a tremendous loss of control, because they could not stop the flood, nor the destruction and suffering it brought. Therefore, everyone affected has every reason in the world to be devastated. But we often overlook, in the face of so much suffering, that there are still very many things that we can influence, because we are still alive. We can focus our energy on what is lost and destroyed, or on the scope for decision-making that is currently still possible: for example, whether we get up in the morning or remain lying down, how we meet our neighbors, whether we make contact with others and where we direct our mental energy.


6. Practice Gratitude

Even when all seems lost, there are daily reasons to be grateful, for example for the countless volunteers. In an inner state of gratitude, it is easier to deal with the challenges of a disaster.


7. Help Others

Many of those affected initially helped others, even though their own house was also in ruins. Even if this seems unreasonable at first glance, it has a deeper meaning: networking with other affected people and volunteers can strengthen us - emotionally, but also in a very practical way. Furthermore, it gives us meaning, satisfaction and energy when we help other people. And we can also use energy to rebuild our own environment.


8. Choose a Victim or Shaper Attitude

The flood in the Ahr Valley had a negative impact on the lives of thousands of people. But whether they also became victims as a result is a choice. We always have the choice to feel like a victim or to shape the circumstances. A victim is helpless and overwhelmed, defenselessly at the mercy of the situation. A shaper sees the difficult circumstances as a challenge, seeks help and support and focuses his or her own attention on small successes.

Literature Suggestion

Karsten Drath (2022): "Resilienz in der Unternehmensführung“, Haufe-Verlag.

In the 3rd edition of the book, which will be published in early 2023, an entire chapter is devoted to the flood disaster in the Ahr Valley - including a study for which 40 people affected were interviewed.

9. Learning Self-Care

Crisis mode and the permanent stress that goes with it are not a permanently livable state. If you remain stuck in it for too long, your own exhaustion depression is pre-programmed. It therefore makes sense to also look after your own well-being and recharge your batteries, even if there is still so much to do at home - be it a short vacation with friends, a cure or even just a regularly practiced hobby. A change of scenery can help and give you fresh energy.

10. Thinking about the Possibility that Everything Has Something Good Too

In the face of so much suffering, it is hard to imagine that the flood and its aftermath should also have some good. And yet there is always the possibility of this. Quite a few people have regained their faith in humanity through the unprecedented solidarity they have experienced. Many have resolved to do more in the future to help other people in need. Others have made new friends. This does not make the suffering go away, but it is easier to bear.


"Witnessing this togetherness of people from near and far up close was the bist thing about the flood disaster."
Flood victim from the Ahr Valley


11. Develop a Clear Vision

In addition to the direct consequences of the flood, many of those affected suffer from uncertainty about their personal future. Often, this is felt to be one hundred percent dependent on external factors such as the decisions of authorities and insurance companies. However, it is important to develop an inner vision of what one really wants. This often leads to saving a lot of unnecessary work and time.

12. Practice Patience and Small Steps

When carrying heavy loads or climbing a mountain, you should take small steps. Anyone who has ever hiked in the mountains c an understand that. It's the same with coping with natural disasters and other crises. If you always keep your eyes on the summit, you will inevitably feel that you are not making any progress and become discouraged. It is therefore important to focus attention on the next steps and the small, achievable milestones and also to celebrate them.

" Even when all seems lost, there are reasons to be grateful every day. "

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