Introduction to Survival Psychology

IMG_7880It’s late October and you and your buddy are amazed by the unseasonably good weather. To enjoy the day, you decide to go on a mountain bike ride. You pack light since you won’t be gone long so you throw in a few bottles of water to go on the frame, some trail mix and your cell phone.

You ride hard, pushing each other. The scenery and weather are so great that you lose track of time and before you know it, the sun starts to set.  Moments later, disaster strikes. Dodging your buddy on a turn, you both tumble down a steep hill and break your leg. Your bike partner is shaken and bruised and both bikes sit below you in a tangled mess. Even at your weight, there’s no way your buddy can haul you out. You are several miles from your car.

You’re almost out of water, the snacks got left in the car, and your cell phone isn’t getting a signal.

Introduction to Survival Psychology

So often we have focus on how survival skills increase your odds of staying alive. With that, you need to understand it takes much more than the knowledge and skills of building shelters, finding food, and creating fires to live successfully through a survival situation.

There are numerous cases where people with little or no survival training have managed to survive life-threatening circumstances while others with survival training have used their skills and died. In a majority of thecases where someone comes home verticle and not horizontal, it can be attributed to positive mental attitude. Combining skills with a solid understanding of how you will react to a situation improves your capability to survive. In addition, placing yourself in scenarios, where you have to endure hardship, will strengthen your resilience. The key ingredient in any survival situation is the mental attitude of those involved. Having survival skills is important; having the will to survive is essential.

Stress and Survival

Technically there is good stress (eustress) and bad stress (distress). Stress can be described as our reaction to pressure. It is the name given to the experience we have as we physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually respond to life’s tensions.

The Need for Stress in Survival

We need stress because it has many positive benefits. Stress provides us with challenges and the drive to move beyond our current situation. It gives us chances to leverage our strengths. Stress can confirm our ability to handle intense pressure without breaking and tests our adaptability and flexibility to situations. All of this is known as eustress.

Too much stress can take its toll and create dangerous situations for the survivor. Too much stress leads to distress. Distress causes an uncomfortable tension that we try to escape and, preferably, avoid.

Below are common signs of distress often found in survivors when faced with too much stress:

  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Angry outbursts
  • Forgetfulness
  • Low energy level
  • Constant worrying
  • Propensity for mistakes
  • Thoughts about death or suicide
  • Trouble getting along with others
  • Withdrawing from others
  • Hiding from responsibilities

Carelessness.

If not controlled, stress can be destructive. Not only does it discourage the survivor, but can be a catalyst of bad decisions. Feeling the need to rush, take unnecessary chances, or taking short cuts can all lead to disaster. When faced with a life or death situation, the human brain uses the Cerebellum to harness the capability to be rational. When immediate danger arrises, the ability to be rational is bypassed and hijacked by the Amygdala, the part of the brain that offers few options. With the Amygdala flee, freeze, or fight are the only real options. Any of these three can be the wrong decision. A survivor under new and uncertain stress can panic and forget all training. Key to your survival is your ability to manage the inevitable stresses you will encounter. The survivor works with stress instead of the other way around. A possible way to prevent Amygdala hijack is by practicing immediate action drills. This is discussed further in the lectures on video.

Survival Stressors

Any event can lead to stress. Chaos tells us that multiple events create a survival situation. These events are not stress, but they produce it and are called “stressors.”

Stressors are the obvious cause while stress is the response. Once the body recognizes the presence of a stressor, it then begins to act to protect itself.

In response to a stressor, the body prepares either to “fight, freeze, or flee.” This preparation involves an internal SOS sent throughout the body. As the body responds to this SOS, several actions take place. The body releases stored fuels (sugar and fats) to provide quick energy; breathing rate increases to supply more oxygen to the blood; muscle tension increases to prepare for action; blood clotting mechanisms are activated to reduce bleeding from cuts; senses become more acute (hearing becomes more sensitive, eyes become big, smell becomes sharper) so that you are more aware of your surrounding; and heart rate and blood pressure rise to provide more blood to the muscles. This protective posture lets a person cope with potential dangers; however, a person cannot maintain such a level of alertness indefinitely.

The cumulative effect of minor stressors can be a major distress if they all happen too close together. A survivor’s body will already or soon will be subject to physical exhaustion or possibly injury. After awhile resistance to stress wears down and the sources of stress continue (or increase), eventually a state of exhaustion arrives. At this point, the ability to resist stress or use it in a positive way gives out and signs of distress appear. Anticipating stressors and developing strategies to cope with them are two ingredients in the effective management of stress. It is therefore essential that the survivor in a survival setting be aware of the types of stressors that will be encountered.

IMG_7915

Injury, Illness, or Death

Injury, illness, and death are real possibilities a survivor has to face. Perhaps nothing is more stressful than being alone in an unfamiliar environment where you could die from an accident or have witnessed the death of someone else.

Illness and injury can also add to stress by limiting your ability to maneuver, get food and drink, find shelter, and defend yourself. Even if illness and injury don’t lead to death, they add to stress through the pain and discomfort they generate. It is only by controlling the stress associated with the vulnerability to injury, illness, and death that a survivor can have the courage to take the risks associated with survival tasks.

Uncertainly and Lack of Control

We are control freaks. We manage our time, set expectations for others, and chase after goals. We check sports scores through smart devices and and expect updates on major news stories. Some people have trouble operating in settings where everything is not clear-cut. The only guarantee in a survival situation is that nothing is guaranteed. It can be extremely stressful operating on limited information in a setting where you have limited control of your surroundings. This uncertainty and lack of control also adds to the stress of being ill, injured, or killed.

Environment

You are at the bottom of the food chain. Even as a seasoned outdoorsman your modern body was not built to withstand the environment for long term. Get over it, deal with it, and do something about it. Even under the most ideal circumstances, nature is quite formidable. In survival, you will have to contend with the stressors of weather, terrain, and the variety of creatures inhabiting an area. Heat, cold, rain, winds, mountains, swamps, deserts, insects, dangerous reptiles, and other animals are just a few of the challenges awaiting the survivor working to stay alive. Depending on how a survivor handles the stress of the environment, the immediate surroundings in the Comfort and Explorer Zones can be either a source of food and protection or can be a cause of extreme discomfort leading to injury, illness, or death.

Hunger and Thirst

The general rule is 3 days without water and 3 weeks without food. Without food and water a person will weaken and eventually die. Thus, getting and preserving food and water takes on increasing importance as the length of time in a survival setting increases. For a survivor used to having his provisions in the pack, foraging can be a big source of stress.

Fatigue

Forcing yourself to continue surviving is not easy as you grow more tired. It is possible to become so fatigued that the act of just staying awake is stressful in itself. Rest is important, but in cold weather when the body is not able to keep its self warm, going to sleep can be a death sentence. Getting food, warmth and hydrated will allow you to take breaks and sleep, but only after you have everything else squared away.

Isolation

There are some advantages to facing adversity with others. As outdoor enthusiasts we learn individual skills, but we often work as part of a community. Being in contact with others also provides a greater sense of security and a feeling someone is available to help if problems occur. A significant stressor in survival situations is that often a person or team has to rely solely on its own resources.

The survival stressors mentioned in this section are by no means the only ones you may face. Remember, what is stressful to one person may not be stressful to another. Your experiences, training, personal outlook on life, physical and mental conditioning, and level of self-confidence contribute to what you will find stressful in a survival environment. The object is not to avoid stress, but rather to manage the stressors of survival and make them work for you.

Summary

You have to make up your mind today that when you get into a survival situation you are going to make it back. Practice your skills in controlled environments, but you need to get out there and work when the odds are against you. Setting up a shelter in the wind, lighting fires in the rain, or fasting for a few days just so you know you can endure hunger will better prepare you when you face an actual situation.

 

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