The current fire season is surely a clear indication that the nature of urban risk and disasters is changing. Hazards are increasing in intensity and frequency and their causes and after-effects are becoming more complex.
As urban corridors continue to be built in areas where hazards are commonplace, growing numbers of people will be living with a constant threat of environmental upheaval and climate change. Indeed the United Nations estimates 6.3 billion people – 68 per cent of the world’s population – will be living in urban areas by 2050. Many of these growing cities are located on the coast or in other areas that are increasingly threatened by floods, storms, earthquakes, fires, heat or cold waves and drought.
Disaster management and policy responses have mainly focused on building, sustaining or restoring socio-economic, environmental and physical structures and systems for housing rehabilitation, water and sanitation and food security.
But what about the mental and emotional wellbeing of people affected by these disasters?
At a time when the urban resilience literature mainly addresses broader socio-economic and environmental systems, and there is a near-absence of literature that focuses on personal wellbeing in resilience, we are now undoubtedly witnessing the unpredictability and intensity of hazards and disasters.
This is having a significant impact on those who live through these events and also those involved in disaster response.
There is a growing consensus that complex global challenges posed by an increasing number of disasters and climate change cannot simply be solved by ‘business-as-usual’ policy approaches. Rather, they require new social practices and a broader cultural shift to support resilience. This is a failure of the academic community to debate the contribution of wellbeing and mind to urban resilience research.
As a result, the potential role of people’s inner dimensions and transformation is attracting increased attention from researchers and practitioners.
Recent advances in neuroscience research and other fields suggest that certain inner capacities, like mindfulness, can open new pathways towards societal resilience. But in the fields of disaster risk reduction and resilience, their potential role has been largely ignored.
Mindfulness is generally defined as intentional, non-judgmental attentiveness to the present moment. While rooted in Buddhist psychology, it is seen as ‘an inherent quality of human consciousness’ that is accessible to — and empirically assessable in — individuals, independent of their religious or spiritual beliefs.
Since its introduction into western science about 40 years ago, extensive research has linked mindfulness to established theories of attention, awareness and emotional intelligence. Different theories and methods have been developed for its understanding and assessment as an inner capacity or dispositional characteristic (a medium to long-lasting trait).
At the same time, it is increasingly claimed to have the potential to bring about societal transformation. In practice, individual capacity for mindfulness has been advocated by organisations like the Red Cross as an essential skill to increase individual wellness and resilience.
It is thought to help in preparing for, and navigating, a complex future, and is seen as a way to encourage adaptation to increasing adversity in burgeoning urban societies and bring positive meaning to these experiences.
Similar capacity development to foster individual resilience is offered by the OnTrack Flood and Storm Recovery program in Australia. It aims to help people use their strengths to work through practical problems following disasters, provides information to enable them to understand their reactions, and guide them towards drawing up their own mental and physical wellbeing recovery plan.
The few studies that explicitly link mindfulness with risk reduction have examined mindfulness in the context of post-disaster response and recovery. They focus on assessing the potential of specific mindfulness-related interventions to improve psychological resilience in a post-disaster context.
These interventions include mindfulness meditation or relaxation techniques aimed at disaster victims, aid workers — like firefighters, healthcare professionals and volunteers — and disaster researchers.
However, emerging research indicates that mindfulness may open up new perspectives and facilitate cognitive, managerial, structural, ontological, and epistemological change that could support broader risk reduction and resilience building.
In order to better understand the potential of mindfulness in building resilience, we need a deeper understanding of recent advances in social neuroscience, and how the mind influences our capacity to deal with the suffering inherent in the occurrence of hazards and disasters.
Those now living in modern societies face increasingly complex problems, as climate change and disasters produce a constant flood of stimuli that our brain interprets as threatening. It is well documented that the flight/fight/freeze response has evolved in the human body as an automatic reaction to a stressful disruption. It is, however, counterproductive in improving risk reduction and building resilience. Dr Lynne Reeder
When faced with an event that is perceived to be threatening, neuroscientists have found that information is instantaneously sent to the brain’s locus coeruleus (the part of our brain stem involved with physiological responses to stress and panic). The immediate effect is to stimulate the limbic brain and the amygdala in particular (the brain’s ‘fear and alarm centre’), and sideline the prefrontal cortex (the ‘executive centre’ or thinking part of the brain) as the body puts all of its resources into protecting itself from the threat.
But equally, humans are able to reflect on their thoughts, which can also enable us to consciously still our minds and calm our emotions. Current scientific evidence confirms that if we are able to consciously still our minds and calm our emotions, this has implications for how we make decisions, how we improve our perspective taking, and how we engage with others.
Importantly, neuroscience research shows that capacities of self-awareness, reflexivity, flexibility, adaptability, compassion and empathy can be proactively increased through cognitive training, such as mindfulness.
It has been shown that cognitive training can not only foster compassion, it also discourages competitiveness. Developing a compassionate mind can create “certain patterns in our brains that organise our motives, emotions and thoughts in ways that are conducive for our own and other people’s well-being”.
We need to develop the ‘being of resilience’ and more generally foster personal spheres of transformation. Through this, not only will we build the individual resilience that will help to mitigate harmful personal and social impacts and reactions, we will also improve societal wellbeing and resilience in times of cumulative urban disasters and climate change.
Dr Lynne Reeder is Adjunct Research Fellow in the School of Health and Life Sciences. She and colleagues Professor Christine Wamsler (Director, Centre for Sustainability, Lund University, Sweden) and Mark Crosweller (former head of Emergency Management Australia) have contributed a chapter to the newly released book The Routledge International Handbook of Urban Resilience.