Will you be able to cope with the stress of violence, famine and civil unrest? We live in a world experiencing dramatic change and our ability to adapt to these changes will determine weather or not we survive. Our minds are truly magnificent creations but despite its ability to keep you alive… it can also kill you. With this chapter you’ll better understand how the mind copes with disaster and the info presented in this chapter will help you deal with stress and change in a more effective and healthy manner. Without a proper mindset even the strongest of men are useless in the face of danger. You’ll learn to control your anxieties and fears and stand firm in the face of danger.
Survival is 90% mental and 10% physical and therefore it’s essential that you understand how the mind works and its imperative you learn to use it. Think of this chapter as a users manual for your mind. First, let’s review a little background about the nature of stress. It is not a disorder that we strive to relieve or even eliminate it. Rather, it is something universal; it is what we experience as we react to the various pressures that life throws at us.
Stress as a Necessity
Stress can be viewed as necessary because it performs several valuable functions. Experiencing stress helps a human learn their own strengths; each time we overcome a stressful situation, we’ve learned a lesson about our own adaptability. It also provides invaluable feedback on the significance of various stimuli – that is, we do not generally experience everyday events as stressful, so when you do get stressed over something, it’s your body’s way of telling you that this particular stimulus is actually important to you.
Although we accept the idea that stress can have positive effects, the problem is, as always, that there can be too much of a good thing, and when we experience an overload of stress, we’ve got to be aware of it before we let it reach distress. In other words, before we reach the tipping point.
In a survival situation, it’s essential to be able to recognize the signs of distress in yourself and in those around you. Some of the common signs are similar to the behaviors resulting from hunger, such as a low energy level, and reduced mental abilities — absent-mindedness, inability to make decisions, making mistakes, and general carelessness, etc. A person’s social relationships, like his mental state, may be altered under the influence of excessive stress – he may react to minor things with an angry outburst, may avoid responsibility, have trouble getting along with his fellows, and even isolate himself. He may fall into a state of perpetual worry, or even have frequent thoughts of death and/or suicide.
Thus, to sum it up, stress can be helpful and lead you to act efficiently or it can be detrimental and lead you to a state of total panic where you freeze up and fail to perform any of the actions your survival training taught you. Thus the crucial factor determining your survival will be whether you can overcome the inevitable stresses of the survival situation and in so doing summon up, and put into practice, all the survival skills you’ve been trained to perform.
A stressor is defined as an event or other form of pressure which acts to produce stress in an individual. Once the body is alerted to a stressor, it will act; it will call upon a variety of possible responses, including the famed “fight or flight” response. The physiological process that begins almost instantaneously involves action on several fronts. The body supplies itself a surge of quick energy by releasing a burst of stored fuels; breathing becomes more rapid, so that a greater supply of oxygen can be sent to the blood, and the blood prepares by activating its clotting mechanism; heart rate and blood pressure speed up to send more blood to the muscles, which tense up in preparation for possible action. All the senses sharpen to allow you to take in sensory information from the surroundings. This more or less instant transformation allows a person to deal with the danger(s) detected, but one cannot remain at this same intensity for long without its having a negative effect.
This process of dealing with a stressor that comes at you one day, and then after a while the threat is over and your body calms down. However, if the original stressor does not disappear, but instead more stressors are added, there’s a cumulative effect. Eventually resistance to stress is weakened by so many stressors coming at you and if the source of the stress is not relieved, eventually exhaustion takes over and resistance to stress breaks down.
Strategies to deal effectively with stress include developing 1) an ability to foresee in what situations stressors might occur, and 2) methods to cope effectively with those stressors if and when they do occur. It is important, therefore, for the survivalist to be able to predict the kinds of stressors he may face in a survival situation.
Among the most obvious candidates for major stressors are the very real possibilities of death, injury, or illness. Clearly, finding yourself alone in an environment that is new to you, or maybe drastically changed, and where you may at any moment be accosted by a hostile action or a host of other life-threatening events would be a major stressor.
Even if all is peaceful and quiet, the consequences of being injured or becoming ill are such that you can’t provide food, shelter and safety as easily as you could before, and this inability is a stressor. Moreover, the possibly acute pain suffered when you are injured will add to the stress you are experiencing. Understanding these factors — and developing the ability to control stress generated by them — will help the survivalist summon up the courage necessary to perform the essential survival actions he has been trained to take regardless of any risks involved.
A stressor that can be expected in a survival situation is the unpredictability of just about everything; this kind of lack of control of your situation and the inability to gather information can be stressful, and even more so if you’re in a debilitated state.
Mother nature can pack quite a punch at any time, say, when a storm rages and starts tearing up your nice, safe home with you in it. So it is not difficult to imagine the stressors of nature faced by the urban survivalist: weather extremes, collapsed buildings, and the hordes of roaming gangs on the streets. A lot depends on how the survivalist deals with the stress he experiences in his environment. If he handles it well, he can take advantage of his surroundings and supply himself with food and shelter, or he can give in to the stress and discomfort, ignore the opportunities that exist for survival action, and, before too long, perish.
The Basic Stressors: Hunger and Thirst
As the length of time in the survival situation increases, so does the urgency of continually providing oneself an adequate supply of food and water. For a person who is not used to foraging under normal conditions, the pressing need for foraging is almost certain to be a big stressor.
As time in the survival setting drags on, fatigue takes its toll and you must resort to forcing yourself to go on surviving. Fatigue can become so extreme that just trying to stay awake takes a great effort, and so alertness itself becomes stressful.
If you are alone in a survival situation, you can expect your stress level to be higher than if you had company. Being isolated deprives you of the support and information you get when working together with others to find solutions, as well as the sense of comfort derived from knowing someone else besides you is there to help.
The few survival stressors reviewed above are only examples of the many that you might encounter. Different situations affect people in different ways, and the totality of one’s experience and overall outlook as well as physical and mental well-being will play a part in what aspects of the survival situation you find stressful. Remember that the point is not to avoid stress – because it cannot be avoided — but to cope with the stressors effectively. Now that we have reviewed stress and the stressors likely to occur in survival situations, we must learn how to assess our own reactions to them.
Human Reactions to Stressors
Our physiological and psychological reactions to stress have been developed over the course of human history. Our ancestors would employ a coping mechanism and if it worked and got them through a life-threatening crisis, it would then become part of our arsenal of survival mechanisms that remain with us today. Although we know they can still be relied upon to help us survive new challenges, there’s a cautionary note: these built-in stress-coping mechanisms can work against the survivor if he doesn’t understand how they work, and consequently fails to anticipate them.
In this context, fear means an emotional response to a crisis situation which generates concern not only for sheer physical survival, but concern for the preservation of one’s mental well-being as well. Fear is not considered a negative response, because it will act as a check against impulsive or reckless actions that you might take if you failed to recognize the risks involved. But fear can mount to a point where, if uncontrolled, you are basically immobilized and unable to perform the tasks you need to perform in order to survive. Survival preparedness includes self-training. The survivor must learn how to overcome his fears, and in so doing he will gain the confidence in his ability to manage fears that he’ll need when he finds himself in the survival situation.
Anxiety is similar to fear, but on a lower level of the emotional scale. It can be described as a sort of constant uneasiness overshadowing a person. As in the case of fear, anxiety is not necessarily a negative reaction; it’s uncomfortable to experience anxiety and that’s what motivates a person to do something to get out of the situation causing the anxiety. In a survival setting, when you are suffering anxiety but are in control, and you manage to perform the survival tasks you need to do, then your anxiety level is reduced, and you’re also reducing the source of the anxiety – your fears. And, as with fears, anxiety can be detrimental as well as positive. If unchecked, anxiety can mount to the point where it overwhelms you and affects your ability to function properly.
Frustration is the feeling you get when you fail consistently in your attempts to achieve a certain goal, and of course frustration is a given in a survival situation. How could it be otherwise? You are going to have plenty of occasions where there appears to be insurmountable obstacles in the way of you achieving even a minor goal. Mounting frustration leads to anger, which we know can lead people to act rashly and in a manner that is basically self-destructive. In a survival situation, every little blunder is magnified, and frustration appears so often that anger leading to explosive outburst is constantly on the horizon. The key to managing this seemingly devastating scenario is for the survivalist to realize in advance the common human reactions to stress, recognize the anger when it appears, and channel its energy into productive activity instead of engaging in outbursts that waste what little energy there is and fulfill no practical purpose.
We are not talking here about person who is chronically depressed, but rather depression as a result of the psychic wear-and tear experienced during a sustained effort to survive. Frustration gradually turns into anger, and it often happens that although the person has trained himself to maintain control and not to lash out, he is still left with the anger roiling inside and with no real outlet, there can evolve a destructive cycle, involving frustration, anger, and depression. In the depressive state, the whole enterprise of staying alive can appear to be a fool’s errand, that it’s hopeless.
So, what the survivor needs to keep in mind is that it is natural to feel sad when you are in the survival situation. You can expect your thoughts to go out to your loved ones and the “real life” that you are hoping to return to. This kind of thinking is not necessarily destructive, because remembering your goals can help provide the push, the resolve to press on, get through yet another day. However, there lurks in the background the danger that you will let this sadness overwhelm you. The next thing you know, you will slide into a depressed state, which will drain you of any energy you have left and, what is more dangerous, and the depression can slowly eat away at your will to survive.
Boredom is likely whether your survival situation involves others as well as you, or you are isolated, and is not necessarily a negative thing. Boredom may lead you to discover qualities and talents you never knew you had, and perhaps more important, you might discover some as yet untapped inner strengths. However, as with so many other potential stressors, there’s the other side of the coin — boredom can become so pervasive if not dealt with, that it leads to depression. The knowledge of this possibility is something that you must keep in mind as you go about your survival activities, and always endeavor not only to find ways to keep your body and your mind occupied in productive ways, but to give yourself feedback as you go along on your success at being self-sufficient.
Feelings of Guilt
It is very common for survivors to report experiencing a sense of guilt, usually driven by the reality that they’ve found themselves alive and perhaps even uninjured, while others were not so fortunate. Sadness at this loss of companions is compounded by the mounting sense of guilt. Whatever your survival situation, be aware that you might experience these natural feelings of guilt and don’t let them overpower you and lead you to give up the effort to survive, thus compounding the tragedy.
As we have seen, the wide range of thoughts and emotions that you will experience in a survival situation can either be turned to your benefit or they can become the key to your downfall. Examples abound of true survivors who have resisted succumbing to the “dark side” and, having lived through all the terrors they faced, are now seen as courageous, self-sacrificing heroes we would wish to emulate. Here’s a great short video with excellent analogies on how many of us cope with stress:
If you apply the lessons you have learned in survival training, and prepare yourself properly, you will, when the situation demands it, be able to draw from your reserve of internal fortitude and fend off the worrisome thoughts that will naturally appear and reappear. The following are some practical suggestions for achieving this state of psychological readiness.
- Know Thyself: Knowledge of your own tendencies, your strengths and weaknesses, is basic to psychological preparedness. You will develop this understanding through introspection, but also through your training and another important source – feedback from family and friends.
- Fear Management: As discussed earlier, it would be unrealistic to expect a person in a survival situation to have no fears; rather, the realistic approach is to anticipate fears and figure out how you can deal with them. Start by using your imagination: what do you think would be your greatest fear if you found yourself alone in a survival situation? Using your imagination to work through what you would do and think is a form of mental training. What you’re aiming at is similar to the goals that an army training for warfare has – you’re training yourself to use the tools available to you — not to eliminate the fear, but through practice to acquire the confidence that you can control your emotions in order to handle the challenges that come at you.
- Hope for the Best: The old saying, “hope for the best but prepare for the worst” is another way of expressing the realistic mindset that will help you succeed in your adjustment to the new conditions you find yourself in. If you are unrealistic in your appraisal of the situation, you will end up with inflated ideas of an outcome that is basically unattainable; you would only be setting yourself up for a big crash when those hopes are dashed.
- Positive Outlook: Adopting a positive mindset does not come easily to everyone, but it can be learned. It requires a conscious effort to seek out the good. This endeavor will pay off in terms of boosting morale, and is also helpful in keeping you mentally fit by exercising your powers of imagination and creative thinking.
- Keep Curiosity Alive: As we know from studying animals in the wild as well as human nature, a small creature learns through his curiosity, and play is a vehicle for trying out new skills. Keep your curiosity alive, and it may help keep you alive.
- The Role of Humor: “Lighten up!” has been the motto of many a successful survivor. If you can find a way to laugh at your troubles, you will have found a great outlet – a way to release pressure which will help you to stop moping about and get on with the serious things that need to be done.
- Accepting Uncertainty: Uncertainty, conflicting evidence and lack of information are all givens in a survival situation. The successful survivor accepts this and is decisive, resolving to act when necessary, rather than waiting to make a decision when more information becomes available. He can do this confidently, because he trusts his own ability to make adjustments as events unfold.
- Accepting Your Failures: “Get over it” is the watchword here. In survival situations, efficient use of time is critical and the survivor cannot afford to waste time going over and over his past mistakes. Instead of moping about them, think about them only long enough to learn from them, and then use that knowledge to help make better decisions in the future.