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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.
Angry outbursts.
Low energy level.
Constant worrying.
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 body’s 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 hurt.

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 one’s 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 do."

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.

Preparing Yourself

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 alive.

Tips Tto Help You Develop the Survival Attitude

Know Yourself

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.

Anticipate Fears

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.

Be Realistic

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 one’s 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.

Back to the Wilderness Survival Guide.


The Ultralight Backpacking Site | Wilderness Survival - Psychology