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CHAPTER 2 - 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 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
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
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
stressors we may face.
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
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 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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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 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.
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
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.
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."