9 Tips for Keeping Your Head in a Survival Situation
Mental toughness is the first line of defense when you’re faced with life or death
The skills you’ve acquired and gear in your pack are often the difference in making it through a life and death situation. But you first need the mental fortitude to survive. Without the drive to survive—and a strong mindset—no piece of gear will save you. The most important tool to bring along is mental toughness. Having a survivalist mentality (the will to live no matter how difficult the adversity) is multi-faceted. There are hidden hazards abound, but also remedies that can help us recover our advantages and get home safe to our families.
Whether you call it intestinal fortitude, tenacity, or grit, this facet of your survival mindset is all about endurance. Can you hang in there even when your hope has failed?
Tenacity doesn’t have anything to do with physical toughness or stamina. It’s a manifestation of the strength of your will and the toughness of your mind. A truly tenacious person will push themselves to tolerate the intolerable, suffer through the insufferable, and survive the situation that no one expected them to survive. It’s all about overcoming your inner weaknesses and fighting your desire to give up.
The Problem: A number of things can wreck your innate tenacity, but the one that worries me the most is declining mental health. In a lengthy wilderness survival setting or in the wake of a major disaster, it’s hard enough just to stay alive, let alone endure feelings of anxiety or depression or suicidal thoughts.
The Remedy: Emergencies can turn any given day (or week, month, or year) into one of the worst times of your life, so don’t be surprised when you’re not at 100 percent of your normal mental faculties. Once you factor in the stress, worry, fatigue, injury, dehydration, and lack of sound sleep you’ll likely experience during an emergency, it makes sense that anyone would be struggling inside. Now that you know this, you’ll want to watch yourself and your companions for signs of anxiety, depression, anger, frustration, hyperactivity, guilt, suicidal talk, and irrational behavior. Since professional mental health care and the right medicines are unlikely to be available in austere settings or major disasters, you’ll need to do whatever you can for each other. Talk it out, as much as you can, and find ways to cope until the situation improves.
Adaptability is one of the crown jewels of the survival mindset. To be adaptable, you must be able to change along with changing events, situations, and environments. It’s all about flexibility and trying new options. If you get lost in the woods one afternoon, you may not make it home to your own bed. An adaptable person will assess the situation and realize that their bed isn’t an option, so they’ll have to find a new place to sleep. Since there’s no water faucet in the wild, they’ll find a new source of water. There’s no fridge either, so they’ll find a new source of food. These substitutions may not be as good as they would like, but they’ll be good enough for now. An adaptable survivor can embrace change while recognizing the things that are worth continuing and the things that need to be abandoned.
The Problem: What can prevent you from adapting? Stubbornness can do it. Sometimes we think of stubbornness as a good thing (confusing it with tenacity), but it’s often a stumbling block. It’s a refusal to adapt and a rejection of new things. When you’ve driven around town 10 times and still can’t find the building you need, but refuse to ask for directions, that’s stubbornness. When you keep throwing lit matches at the same crappy wet tipi fire lay, that’s also stubbornness.
The Remedy: Check your ego at the door and try something new. Stubbornness is like trying to break down a brick wall with your head. After the first strike, you realize it’s not going to work, but you keep going down the path to self-destruction. Instead of stubbornly repeating the same thing, try some new approaches. Change isn’t all bad, and you might be surprised how well something new will work.
3. Work Ethic
Your work ethic plays a major role in your survival mindset. Survival is hard work—that’s why we don’t choose to do it as a “day job” anymore. When thrust into an emergency that requires hard toil, lazy people are naturally going to suffer. Thankfully, your work ethic can be built up over time (if you survive your initial bout of laziness), and you’ll be wiser for the wear and tear. Experience is a hard but effective teacher, showing us the value of working harder next time. To build a strong work ethic, you’ll have to learn to stick with a job until it gets done.
The Problem: Your work ethic can certainly be hampered by factors beyond your control, like a physical injury, emotional distress, or mental issues. But one thing you can address is laziness. By making a habit of skipping the chores that you don’t want to do and taking shortcuts, laziness can ruin your work ethic (and your outcome).
The Remedy: You’ll have to work hard to build your shelter, drag in firewood, and haul water, but it’s important that you do these hard jobs and see them through to completion. Survival is not a vacation from work. In fact, it’s probably going to be the hardest work you’ll ever do. Skip the shortcuts. Take an honest look at your workload, and then get it done. Don’t be lazy.
Humans make stuff. We make fire, metal, airplanes, and iPhones—and sometimes we even make our own problems. This innate creativity usually benefits us, enabling us to devise ingenious solutions to our problems (in daily life and in emergencies).
The Problem: A fear of failure can ruin someone’s natural creativity. This form of fear is different from normal fear (like being afraid of a dangerous thing). It may stem from childhood, when hyper-critical adults damaged your confidence. It may also arise from a reluctance to disappoint others or to admit that there are limits to your abilities.
The Remedy: Forget about permission and reassurance. Don’t beat yourself up if you fail sometimes—everyone does. When you see something that you can do and you think it might work, be confident and give it a try. Confidence can unlock your creativity, and creativity can save the day.
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Just because everyone cites a positive mental attitude as a beneficial survival trait doesn’t mean you should discount it. In fact, you should pay even closer attention to the topic. I like to explain positivity to my classes as a lens that you look through. It’s a little like “beer goggles,” except that it doesn’t make everyone a “perfect 10” on the attractiveness scale. Instead, it allows you to see the brighter side of a situation. This is a hard skill to master, but it’s worth the work. Your attitude is vital to keep up morale. And this upbeat attitude isn’t just handy when you’re lost in the wilds: you can use it every day.
The Problem: Pessimism is the outlook that can ruin your positive attitude. Whether you’re a lifelong “glass half empty” person or an emergency is starting to wear on you, this destructive viewpoint can make any situation feel worse than it is and can negatively impact your outcome.
The Remedy: How can you cure pessimism? I recommend an attitude of gratitude. Find the “silver linings” in your situation, and be truly grateful for them. Do you have air to breathe? Be grateful for it. Are you uninjured? Be glad about it. Even in the worst settings, you can find things that ARE going your way. If you’re grateful for them, it can change your whole attitude.
When you’re in a tough situation, you may just have to accept it. It’s only natural to resist and deny an ugly revelation or a frightening scenario, but this knee-jerk reaction to fight reality is a mistake. Acceptance doesn’t mean that we like the circumstances around us or want them to continue. Instead, it means that we recognize their reality and understand that we can’t change them right now.
The Problem: Denial is a powerful opponent to acceptance. When we refuse to admit there is a problem or deny the severity of our troubles, we’re just kidding ourselves. And if we act on this false reality instead of what’s really happening, we could end up making things worse.
The Remedy: It takes hard work to accept an unhappy truth or a dire situation. You may be tempted to equate acceptance with surrender or apathy, but they aren’t the same. You’re not giving up or giving in when you accept a situation, you’re simply facing the facts (for now, at least). Acceptance doesn’t mean that things are going to stay bad forever. It just means that you’re being honest about the trouble you’re facing right now. My favorite example of acceptance comes from the book Adrift by Steven Callahan. He was alone on a raft in the Atlantic Ocean for over two months, and at a certain point, he accepted his fate. There was nothing he could do about being on the raft (other than jump out of it), so he accepted that “raft life” was his new life. This let him focus on surviving as he drifted across the ocean, and he ended up covering 1,800 nautical miles before he was rescued.
I’m not talking about clowns and slapstick comedy. I’m talking about the other kind of humor—dark and bitter. It may surprise you, but humor does play a role in human psychology and survival. Sometimes called “gallows humor,” this grim sense of comedy was used by our ancestors as both a weapon and a shield. And it’s still used today. Most of our soldiers, police, firefighters, and EMTs know this type of humor very well. It helps them push through the bad days. No, not everything is a joke, but there is some value in identifying irony where you can.
The Problem: The human mind is complex, and so is the array of emergencies that could befall us. There are some heartbreaking situations when humor is inappropriate and impossible.
The Remedy: Even when someone is in the depths of depression, if you give them enough time and find the right approach, humor can be therapeutic. Satire, irony, and other forms of dark humor may be able to cut through the fog of stress and enhance their brain chemistry, recalibrating their pleasure-reward center and lifting depression and anxiety.
How do we explain bravery? It’s not a lack of fear. Instead, it’s more like a conquest of fear. Fear and bravery are not opposites—in fact, they coexist. When a situation isn’t dangerous or frightening, there’s no need for bravery and no condition for it to exist. We have to be afraid before we can be brave.
The Poison: When we’re too frightened to even think clearly, there’s no room for logic or bravery. There’s only room for panic. This fear response can be described as an unrestrained and all-consuming fear. It’s a common response in emergencies, and it can manifest in several ways. You may engage in frantic behavior or stand frozen in fear. You may even become overwhelmed by emotion, screaming or crying inconsolably. Any of these responses could get you into more trouble, and then you’ll have a whole new set of problems. But if you can use your fear as a tool and hold panic at bay, then you’ll be the master of your fear (and not the other way around).
The Remedy: Accept your fears. Fear is our natural instinct to avoid dangerous things, and it keeps us out of harm’s way. If you can own your fear and keep it under control, it will start working for you.
What motivates a person to stay alive when everything has gone wrong? Many survival stories speak of the survivor’s devotion to their religion, or to a higher power that motivated them and gave them hope. Other survivors have told of their intense desire to get back to family, friends, and loved ones. What would motivate you to stay alive in a survival emergency? It’s different for every person.
The Problem: Hopelessness is the Kryptonite to your superpower of motivation. When a person loses hope that they will be saved and reunited with loved ones, their desire to keep going begins to dwindle. When a person believes that God has abandoned them, hope dies another death. In short, when the thing that normally motivates you begins to lose its strength, you are in a bad situation indeed.
The Remedy: Dig deep. Keep thinking about the things and people you value most. It may take a combined effort from many facets of your survival mindset to put you back on the path to survival, but a positive attitude and tenacity can help restore your will to live. Top them off with your faith in something bigger than yourself, and you might find your motivation returning.