Wilderness Survival - Psychology
(Adapted from the U.S. Army Survival Manual)
There is a psychology to survival. It takes more than the
knowledge and skills to build shelters, get food, make fires,
and live successfully through a survival situation. People with
little or no survival training have managed to survive life-threatening
circumstances, while others with survival training have not used
their skills and died. A key ingredient in any survival situation
is the mental attitude of the individual(s) involved. Survival
skills are important, but having the will to survive is essential.
Stress in a Wilderness Survival Situation
Stress can motivate us to do our best. It is a normal part
of life. In a survival situation it is a given. But too much
stress can lead to any or all of the following:
Difficulty making decisions.
Low energy level.
Propensity for mistakes.
Thoughts about death or suicide.
Trouble getting along with others.
Withdrawing from others.
Hiding from responsibilities.
Often, stressful events occur simultaneously. 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
or flee." 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.
As the bodys resistance to stress wears down and the
sources of stress continue (or increase), 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. Some
of the stressors are:
Injury, Illness, or Death
Uncertainly and Lack of Control
Hunger and Thirst
These are by no means the only ones you may face. 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.
Fear and Anxiety
Fear can have a positive function if it encourages a person
to be cautious in situations where recklessness could result
in injury. Unfortunately, fear can also immobilize a person.
It can cause him to fail to perform activities essential for
survival. There is no shame in this! However, we can acquire
the knowledge and skills needed to increase our confidence and
thereby manage our fears.
In a survival setting a person can reduce his anxiety by performing
tasks that will ensure his coming through the ordeal alive. As
he reduces anxiety, he is bringing under control the source of
that anxiety - his fears. In this form, anxiety is good; however,
anxiety can also have a devastating impact. Anxiety can overwhelm
a person until he becomes easily confused and has difficulty
thinking. It becomes more and more difficult for him to make
good judgments and sound decisions. To survive, he must calm
his anxieties and keep them in the range where they help, not
Anger and Frustration
In a wilderness survival situation, it is inevitable that
something will go wrong - that something will happen beyond a
person's control. With ones life at stake, every mistake
is magnified in terms of its importance. Thus, sooner or later,
a survivor will have deal with frustration when a few of his
plans run into trouble. Getting lost, damaged or forgotten equipment,
the weather, inhospitable terrain, and physical limitations are
a few sources of frustration and anger.
Frustration and anger encourage impulsive reactions, irrational
behavior, poorly thought-out decisions, and, in some instances,
an "I quit" attitude (people sometimes avoid doing
something they can't master). If the person can harness and properly
channel the emotional intensity associated with anger and frustration,
he can productively act as he answers the challenges of survival.
Depression is closely linked with frustration and anger. The
frustrated person becomes more and more angry as he fails to
reach his goals. If the anger does not help the person to succeed,
then the frustration level goes even higher. A destructive cycle
between anger and frustration continues until the person becomes
worn down-physically, emotionally, and mentally. When a person
reaches this point, he starts to give up, and his focus shifts
from "What can I do" to "There is nothing I can
Depression is an expression of this hopeless, helpless feeling.
There is nothing wrong with being sad as you temporarily think
about your loved ones and remember what life is like back in
"civilization" or "the world." Such thoughts,
in fact, can give you the desire to try harder and live one more
day. On the other hand, if you allow yourself to sink into a
depressed state, then it can sap all your energy and, more important,
your will to survive. It is imperative that a survivor resist
succumbing to depression.
Loneliness and Boredom
Man is a social animal. Very few people want to be alone all
the time! Loneliness and boredom can bring to the surface qualities
you thought only others had. The extent of your imagination and
creativity may surprise you. You may discover some hidden talents
and abilities. Most of all, you may tap into a reservoir of inner
strength and fortitude you never knew you had. Conversely, loneliness
and boredom can be another source of depression. You must find
ways to keep your mind productively occupied. Additionally, you
must develop a degree of self-sufficiency. You must have faith
in your capability to "go it alone."
It is not uncommon for survivors to feel guilty about being
spared from death while others were not. This feeling, when used
in a positive way, has encouraged people to try harder to survive
with the belief they were allowed to live for some greater purpose
in life. Sometimes, survivors tried to stay alive so that they
could carry on the work of those killed. Whatever reason you
give yourself, do not let guilt feelings prevent you from living.
The living who abandon their chance to survive accomplish nothing.
Such an act would be the greatest tragedy.
In a wilderness survival situation, your mission is to stay
alive. You are going to experience an assortment of thoughts
and emotions. These can work for you, or they can work to your
downfall. Fear, anxiety, anger, frustration, guilt, depression,
and loneliness are all possible reactions to the many stresses
common to survival. These reactions, when controlled in a healthy
way, help to increase a your likelihood of surviving.
Don't listen to internal fears, or you can experience psychological
defeat long before you physically succumb. Survival is natural
to everyone, but being unexpectedly thrust into the life and
death struggle of survival is not. Don't be afraid of your natural
reactions to this unnatural situation. Prepare yourself to rule
over these reactions so they serve your ultimate interest-staying
Tips Tto Help You Develop the Survival Attitude
Through training, family, and friends take the time to discover
who you are on the inside. Strengthen your stronger qualities
and develop the areas that you know are necessary to survive.
Don't pretend that you won't have fears. Begin thinking about
what would frighten you most if forced to survive alone. Train
in those areas. The goal is not to eliminate the fear, but to
build confidence in your ability to function despite your fears.
Make an honest appraisal of situations. See circumstances
as they are, not as you want them to be. Keep hopes and expectations
realistic. With unrealistic expectations, you may be laying the
groundwork for bitter disappointment. Hope for the best, but
prepare for the worst. It is easier to adjust to pleasant surprises
than to be upset by ones unexpected harsh circumstances.
Adopt a Positive Attitude
Learn to see the potential good in everything. Looking for
the good not only boosts morale, it also is excellent for exercising
your imagination and creativity.
Remind Yourself What Is at Stake
Remember, failure to prepare yourself psychologically to cope
with survival leads to reactions such as depression, carelessness,
inattention, loss of confidence, poor decision-making, and giving
up before the body gives in. At stake is your life and the lives
of others who are depending on you to do your share.
Prepare yourself to cope with the rigors of survival. Training
will give you confidence, and the more realistic the training,
the less overwhelming an actual survival setting will be.
Learn Stress Management Techniques
People under stress have a potential to panic if they're not
well-trained and not prepared psychologically to face whatever
the circumstances may be. While we often cannot control the survival
circumstances in which we find ourselves, it is within our ability
to control our response to those circumstances. Learning stress
management techniques can enhance significantly your capability
to remain calm and focused as you work to keep yourself and others
alive. A few good techniques to develop include relaxation skills,
time management skills, assertiveness skills, and cognitive restructuring
skills (the ability to control how you view a situation).
Remember, "the will to survive" can also be considered
to be "the refusal to give up."
Steve's Notes: Read survival stories. Just knowing
true stories about how others have survived can be very encouraging
in an emergency situation. Want to help others in the group with
their survival psychology? Tell them the stories.
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