Psychology of Survival


It takes much more than the knowledge and skills to build shelters, get food,
make fires, and travel without the aid of standard navigational devices to live
successfully through a survival situation. Some people with little or no survival
training have managed to survive life-threatening circumstances. Some
people 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. Having survival skills is important; having the will to survive is
essential. Without a desk to survive, acquired skills serve little purpose and
invaluable knowledge goes to waste.
There is a psychology to survival. The soldier in a survival environment faces
many stresses that ultimately impact on his mind. These stresses can produce
thoughts and emotions that, if poorly understood, can transform a confident,
well-trained soldier into an indecisive, ineffective individual with questionable
ability to survive. Thus, every soldier must be aware of and be able to
recognize those stresses commonly associated with survival. Additionally, it is
imperative that soldiers be aware of their reactions to the wide variety of
stresses associated with survival. This chapter will identify and explain the
nature of stress, the stresses of survival, and those internal reactions soldiers
will naturally experience when faced with the stresses of a real-world survival
situation. The knowledge you, the soldier, gain from this chapter and other
chapters in this manual, will prepare you to come through the toughest times
alive.

A LOOK AT STRESS
Before we can understand our psychological reactions in a survival setting, it is helpful to
first know a little bit about stress.
Stress is not a disease that you cure and eliminate. Instead, it is a condition we all
experience. 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.

Need for Stress
We need stress because it has many positive benefits. Stress provides us with challenges; it
gives us chances to learn about our values and strengths. Stress can show our ability to
handle pressure without breaking; it tests our adaptability and flexibility; it can stimulate us
to do our best. Because we usually do not consider unimportant events stressful, stress can
also be an excellent indicator of the significance we attach to an event–in other words, it
highlights what is important to us.
We need to have some stress in our lives, but too much of anything can be bad. The goal is
to have stress, but not an excess of it. Too much stress can take its toll on people and
organizations. Too much stress leads to distress. Distress causes an uncomfortable tension
that we try to escape and, preferably, avoid. Listed below are a few of the common signs of
distress you may find in your fellow soldiers or yourself 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.
As you can see, stress can be constructive or destructive. It can encourage or discourage,
move us along or stop us dead in our tracks, and make life meaningful or seemingly
meaningless. Stress can inspire you to operate successfully and perform at your maximum
efficiency in a survival situation. It can also cause you to panic and forget all your training.
Key to your survival is your ability to manage the inevitable stresses you will encounter.
The survivor is the soldier who works with his stresses instead of letting his stresses work
on him.

Survival Stresses
Any event can lead to stress and, as everyone has experienced, events don’t always come
one at a time. 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.” 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.
Stressors are not courteous; one stressor does not leave because another one arrives.
Stressors add up. The cumulative effect of minor stressors can be a major distress if they
all happen too close together. As the body’s 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 soldier
in a survival setting be aware of the types of stressors he will encounter. Let’s take a look at
a few of these.

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
hostile action, an accident, or from eating something lethal. 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 con-trolling the stress associated with the
vulnerability to injury, illness, and death that a soldier can have the courage to take the
risks associated with survival tasks.

Uncertainly and Lack of Control
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 add to the stress of being ill, injured,
or killed.

Environment
Even under the most ideal circumstances, nature is quite formidable. In survival, a soldier
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 soldier working to
survive. Depending on how a soldier handles the stress of his environment, his
surroundings 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
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 soldier used to having his provisions issued, 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.

Isolation
There are some advantages to facing adversity with others. As soldiers we learn individual
skills, but we train to function as part of a team. Although we, as soldiers, complain about
higher headquarters, we become used to the information and guidance it provides,
especially during times of confusion. 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.
We now have a general knowledge of stress and the stressors common to survival; the next
step is to examine our reactions to the stresses we may face.

NATURAL REACTIONS
Man has been able to survive many shifts in his environment throughout the centuries. His
ability to adapt physically and mentally to a changing world kept him alive while other
species around him gradually died off. The same survival mechanisms that kept our
forefathers alive can help keep us alive as well! However, these survival mechanisms that
can help us can also work against us if we don’t understand and anticipate their presence.
It is not surprising that the average person will have some psychological reactions in a
survival situation. We will now examine some of the major internal reactions you and
anyone with you might experience with the survival stressors addressed in the earlier
paragraphs. Let’s begin.

Fear
Fear is our emotional response to dangerous circumstances that we believe have the
potential to cause death, injury, or illness. This harm is not just limited to physical damage;
the threat to one’s emotional and mental well-being can generate fear as well. For the
soldier trying to survive, fear can have a positive function if it encourages him to be
cautious in situations where recklessness could result in injury. Unfortunately, fear can also
immobilize a person. It can cause him to become so frightened that he fails to perform
activities essential for survival. Most soldiers will have some degree of fear when placed in
unfamiliar surroundings under adverse conditions. There is no shame in this! Each soldier
must train himself not to be overcome by his fears. Ideally, through realistic training, we
can acquire the knowledge and skills needed to increase our confidence and thereby
manage our fears.

Anxiety
Associated with fear is anxiety. Because it is natural for us to be afraid, it is also natural for
us to experience anxiety. Anxiety can be an uneasy, apprehensive feeling we get when
faced with dangerous situations (physical, mental, and emotional). When used in a healthy
way, anxiety urges us to act to end, or at least master, the dangers that threaten our
existence. If we were never anxious, there would be little motivation to make changes in
our lives. The soldier in a survival setting reduces his anxiety by performing those tasks
that will ensure his coming through the ordeal alive. As he reduces his anxiety, the soldier
is also 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
soldier to the point where he becomes easily confused and has difficulty thinking. Once this
happens, it becomes more and more difficult for him to make good judgments and sound
decisions. To survive, the soldier must learn techniques to calm his anxieties and keep
them in the range where they help, not hurt.

Anger and Frustration
Frustration arises when a person is continually thwarted in his attempts to reach a goal.
The goal of survival is to stay alive until you can reach help or until help can reach you. To
achieve this goal, the soldier must complete some tasks with minimal resources. It is
inevitable, in trying to do these tasks, that something will go wrong; that something will
happen beyond the soldier’s control; and that with one’s life at stake, every mistake is
magnified in terms of its importance. Thus, sooner or later, soldiers will have to cope with
frustration when a few of their plans run into trouble. One outgrowth of this frustration is
anger. There are many events in a survival situation that can frustrate or anger a soldier.
Getting lost, damaged or forgotten equipment, the weather, inhospitable terrain, enemy
patrols, and physical limitations are just a few sources of frustration and anger. Frustration
and anger encourage impulsive reactions, irrational behavior, poorly thought-out decisions,
and, in some insta nces, an “I quit” attitude (people sometimes avoid doing something they
can’t master). If the soldier can harness and properly channel the emotional intensity
associated with anger and frustration, he can productively act as he answers the challenges
of survival. If the soldier does not properly focus his angry feelings, he can waste much
energy in activities that do little to further either his chances of survival or the chances of
those around him.

Depression
It would be a rare person indeed who would not get sad, at least momentarily, when faced
with the privations of survival. As this sadness deepens, we label the feeling “depression.”
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 yours elf to sink into a depressed state, then it can sap all your energy
and, more important, your will to survive. It is imperative that each soldier resist
succumbing to depression.

Loneliness and Boredom
Man is a social animal. This means we, as human beings, enjoy the company of others. Very
few people want to be alone all the time! As you are aware, there is a distinct chance of
isolation in a survival setting. This is not bad. Loneliness and boredom can bring to the
surface qualities you thought only others had. The extent of your imagination and creativity
may surprise you. When required to do so, 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. As
a soldier surviving alone, or with others, 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.”

Guilt
The circumstances leading to your being in a survival setting are sometimes dramatic and
tragic. It may be the result of an accident or military mission where there was a loss of life.
Perhaps you were the only, or one of a few, survivors. While naturally relieved to be alive,
you simultaneously may be mourning the deaths of others who were less fortunate. 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
Your mission as a soldier in a survival situation is to stay alive. As you can see, 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 soldier’s likelihood of
surviving. They prompt the soldier to pay more attention in training, to fight back when
scared, to take actions that ensure sustenance and security, to keep faith with his fellow
soldiers, and to strive against large odds. When the survivor cannot control these reactions
in a healthy way, they can bring him to a standstill. Instead of rallying his internal
resources, the soldier listens to his internal fears. This soldier experiences psychological
defeat long before he physically succumbs. Remember, survival is natural to everyone;
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 with the honor and dignity
associated with being an American soldier.
It involves preparation to ensure that your reactions in a survival setting are productive, not
destructive. The challenge of survival has produced countless examples of heroism,
courage, and self-sacrifice. These are the qualities it can bring out in you if you have
prepared yourself. Below are a few tips to help prepare yourself psychologically for survival.
Through studying this manual and attending survival training you can 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 will have no fears. Begin thinking about what would frighten you the
most if forced to survive alone. Train in those areas of concern to you. The goal is not to
eliminate the fear, but to build confidence in your ability to function despite your fears.
Be Realistic
Don’t be afraid to make an honest appraisal of situations. See circumstances as they are,
not as you want them to be. Keep your hopes and expectations within the estimate of the
situation. When you go into a survival setting with unrealistic expectations, you may be
laying the groundwork for bitter disappointment. Follow the adage, “Hope for the best,
prepare for the worst.” It is much easier to adjust to pleasant surprises about one’s
unexpected good fortunes 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.

Train
Through military training and life experiences, begin today to prepare yourself to cope with
the rigors of survival. Demonstrating your skills in training will give you the confidence to
call upon them should the need arise. Remember, 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 are 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.”

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