Psychology Of Survival And Coping With Stress

The current approach to survival training with a few notable exceptions is to focus on the physical skills and deal with the psychological aspects in a secondary manner. The psychology of survival is almost never found in today’s media, and preppers and survivalists are unaware ho the psychology of survival operates.

The focus on physical survival is reflected in the following statement often found in survival manuals: “Man can survive approximately three minutes without air. Three hours without shelter (in certain extreme weather conditions). Three days without water (less in high temperatures), and lastly, three weeks without food.”

One then must ask the question, how long will you survive if you panic or have no will to survive?

The answer, of course, is not very long. I believe the crucial factor in the survival equation is the attitude and will to live of the survivor, and it is important to focus on this area when training for potential survival situations. The psychology of survival is often ignored, even though it has an incredible effect on anyone finding themselves in a disaster scenario.

The purpose of this article is to examine the nature of survival stress and the coping mechanism which can be mobilized to increase the chances of survival. The first requirement for the survivor is to have already a sound self-concept and belief in oneself as a person, combined with a positive attitude about his condition.

Rather than think, “what a terrible position I am in”, one should focus on “how can I improve this position?”

The crucial factor in mental control is our own perception of the survival situation. Our previous life experience, training, values, and attitudes form the perceptual filter through which we evaluate our situation. This evaluation will determine our response to the stressors.

The stressors in survival situations may be fear, anxiety, pain, injury, illness, excessive cold or heat, hunger, thirst, fatigue, sleep deprivation, loneliness, and isolation. The underlying psychological fear is a lack of control, a feeling of helplessness which is accentuated by impending, continuous, lack of certainty as to the final outcome.

The obvious solution is to begin exerting control by dealing with the stressors in a practical manner. ACTION reduces stress.

The different nature of survival stressors can best be illustrated using the following model of life stress

Psychology of survival – Types of stressPsychology of survival – Types of stress

You will notice that it is just as important to avoid working too hard as it is to avoid the onset of boredom. When dealing with stress, one should seek the balance of eustress which is a positive response of the exertion of a degree of control over the situation.

In a eustress situation, there is a balance between the physical, emotional and mental aspects of the personality and all are coping with the situation. The person’s abilities are able to adapt and manage the stressors.

On the other hand, in the overstress situation the physical aspect may dominate and greater and greater efforts made to fight a situation which eventually leads to fatigue, exhaustion, and burnout.

There are survival situations where a supreme effort may be required — to ski out of an avalanche, to grab a rescue rope, to avoid a rockfall. However, repeated attempts at maximum effort may indicate that the wrong solution is being attempted and trying too hard may exhaust limited resources.

In these instances, the psychology of survival shows us that an increased focus on the cognitive domain may provide an alternative solution. If there is too much concentration on the cognitive domain, the mind floods with too many alternatives and functional decision making may be impaired. People will dither and be in a quandary about what to do next or even what to do first.

In the case of distress, the emotions dominate actions and feelings of frustration, grief, indecision, and powerlessness may cloud judgment, develop into fear/anxiety, and erupt into panic.

In the psychology of survival, panic is normally associated with the initial impact of that stage of the survival experience although it may manifest itself later under prolonged stress.


Psychology of survival – Reaction to stress

Hans Selye, the noted Canadian researcher on stress, identified the following stages of the body’s reaction to stress.

An initial alarm reaction stage which is characterized by a drop in normal body activity — this is the initial frozen panic.

This is followed by a rapid increase in body activity as the body mobilizes its defenses and is aroused by increased hormonal activity and adrenaline. This is the “fight/flight” response as the body prepares for action and reaches a high state of physical and mental alertness.

This is followed by a period of adaption where the body maintains a higher than normal level of activity. The adaptation stage continues until the stress is removed and the body returns to normal or, if body reserves are depleted, it ends in exhaustion and death.

While learning about the psychology of survival, it is important to realize that we all have a finite amount of adaption capacity. It is really important to know our capacity and to pace ourselves accordingly and use our finite spiritual and physical energy as effectively as possible.

Effective adaption and pacing are greatly improved with progressive training and realistic simulations. One of the side effects of technical survival training may well be an improvement in psychological endurance. This is more likely to take place if the survival training is deliberately and purposely stressful.

Obviously, the level of this stress must be carefully monitored and controlled to prevent permanent harm.

The situation of under stress is typified by boredom, illness, lack of purpose, and hopelessness and often develops in long term survival situations where people just give up.

In accident situations, it is estimated that only 12.5 percent of people react effectively. An incredible 75 percent will have some degree of bewilderment. The remaining 12.5 percent will exhibit inappropriate behaviors.

The period of psychological shock will vary from seconds to years. Once again realistic simulation training, adaption, and habituation will greatly improve a person’s response

This initial impact phase in a survival situation is followed by a second phase which has three stages:

  1. Denial where the victims protests and denies the situation is happening—this is an intellectual non-acceptance.
  2. Recall where there is a mental replay, re-talking, re-imagining of the experience.
  3. A return to more effective coping behavior typified by coming to terms with the problem.

What is the best way to handle survival stress?

The answer to this problem is in the developing of a series of coping mechanisms or tactics which can be combined within an overall strategic plan. It is important to have a long-term plan and use the coping tactics to help achieve this objective

Coping mechanisms include:

  1. Decision/action.
  2. Setting realistic goals/Manageable units.
  3. Centering or focusing.
  4. Ritual and order.
  5. Switching off.
  6. Humor.

Psychology of survival – Decision/Action

Research has shown that the highest stress recorded in parachutists is immediately before the jump. Once the green light goes on, and the person is committed to the jump the stress indexes drop rapidly before the jump takes place!

Uncertainty and doubt are removed once a decision has been made and the movement to action brings one a sense of regaining of control of the situation.

The physical action also uses up energy from a body in a high state of arousal because of the flight/fight response. Inactivity in this high state of arousal is very stressful.

It is even more beneficial if the action improves the situation even if it is only of marginal benefit, e.g., gathering firewood, making an inventory of resources, constructing a windbreak, making a signal fire.

Psychology of survival – Goals, Management

When faced with a major survival situation, do not try and solve it all at once. Identify immediate basic needs and deal with them on a one-by-one basis.

In some extreme instances, this “one step at a time” approach is the only way to go. When climbing through the extremely unstable and dangerous icefall of the Kumbu glacier on the 1982 Canadian Mt. Everest Expedition I remember clearly breaking the 31/2 hour journey down into stages of varying difficulty and danger and tackling them one at a time.

Triage is an extreme example of this approach: slightly injured and extremely seriously injured people are left in medical emergencies where there are limited resources, and the effort is focused on the seriously injured “in-between” cases.

The cold pragmatism is that the most seriously injured will die anyway. The slightly injured will survive and-the ones in between may be saved. The important thing to remember is you can only do what you are capable of doing, no one is superhuman, and it is unrealistic to expect the impossible

Psychology of survival – Focusing on the task

This technique is most effective, combined with the breaking down of tasks into manageable units and then focusing all your effort and energy into accomplishing each goal.

Do not waste energy on regret-ting events and mistakes or worrying and creating anxiety about events ahead. Deal with the immediate problems. It is really important that this does not exclude “strategic long-term” planning which would take place at another time as this planning would involve learning from mistakes and looking ahead and planning against future problems and hazards.

Failure must always be regarded as “learning from one’s mistakes.” Ask yourself, “what did I do wrong, how can I solve this in a different, more effective way?”

Again, one sees the advantage of a positive attitude, lateral thinking, flexibility to change, and the absence of dogmatism as desirable survival traits.

Psychology of survival – Ritual, and Order

The degree of stress is directly proportional to the degree of change and the degree of perceived loss of control over events.

The establishment of some form of order and the subsequent ritualization of this order is another stress-reducing mechanism. A ritual is a formal procedure or a solemn observance that has implied significance beyond the action.

It brings order, stability, and comfort to the observer Ina survival situation this could be many things: daily personal toilet, daily prayer, daily fire lighting, and daily meals.

These rituals would normally involve specific procedures at set times and places and provide anchors or firm reference points for the survivors.

I remember one particularly unpleasant experience on a winter climb in the Scottish mountains. There was a terrible blizzard and my climbing partner and I were stranded on a cliff ledge 1,000 feet from the ground with no shelter and only two sandwiches.

The 14 hours of darkness were made more bearable by dividing up the sandwiches into seven portions and eating every two hours. The sequence was food, an attempt to sleep, the onset of involuntary shivering, food, attempt to sleep, the onset of involuntary shivering. In the morning, we were exhausted but alive, and the storm had abated.

Obviously, we had used the tactic of manageable units by dividing the night up into two-hour blocks of endurance. We had focused our energy on the two hours of survival, and finally we had rewarded ourselves with a ritual two mouthfuls of food and then repeated the cycle.

It was tough, but it worked. We met the rescue team on the way home the next day!

In longer-term situations, the development of automated habits may also help in conserving valuable energy as one learns to be more effective and efficient with repeated practice.

Psychology of survival – Switching Off

The technique of total and selective switching off is another personal survival technique that may be used to one’s advantage in certain situations.

Total switching off can only occur when it is safe to do so when one is safely in a survival shelter and attempting to sleep or just sit out a storm. One attempts to focus on more pleasurable experiences and thereby shut out the immediate situations.

If one is successful, this allows the body some recuperation from external stresses and provides mental or sometimes spiritual release. Prayer and meditation are both variations of this technique —in the former requiring religious conviction and the latter some practical training.

Psychology of survival – Types of stress - Shutting off

Selective switching off is much more difficult to achieve and needs to be used with caution. The most common example is the repression of emotions when dealing with tragic and often gory accidents when prompt, effective aid must be administered.

Pragmatic and objective decisions have to be made often at some emotional cost, and this eventually has to be addressed in order to maintain long-term mental health. This post-crisis re-adjustment may be facilitated by open expression of emotion — crying, talking it out, sharing the experience with empathetic listeners.

Professionals involved in rescue and emergency first aid often use their peers to deal with this post-crisis emotional imbalance hence the close kinship in these professions.

Psychology of survival – Humor

The inclusion of humor in the psychology of survival may appear to be an unusual choice as a coping mechanism, and yet in my experience it is one of the most powerful tools in a difficult situation. It often helps those dealing with PTSD

Humor may be defined as that quality of action, speech or writing which excites amusement, oddity or comicality. It may involve laughing at self or a situation and thereby seeing another side to what may be a serious situation.

This does not mean the situation is taken lightly, far from it, humor comes to play as a stress reliever after a positive action has taken place. Its value lies in relieving the situation and providing emotional release in a positive and restorative manner.

There is some research that indicates laughter is good for you. The utilization of humor depends very much on an individual’s personality and on his facility to perceive events in different ways and from different viewpoints.


The foregoing coping mechanisms have all helped me in stressful survival situations I have confronted in my own life. It is up to each individual to prepare him/herself for potential survival situations by thinking through their own psychological strength and weakness.

The greatest fear is the fear of the unknown, not the unknown in the environment, the unknown within ourselves. We have nothing to fear but ourselves.

This article has been written by James H. Redford MD for Prepper’s Will.

Useful resources to check out:

Knowledge to survive any medical crisis situation

Survival Lessons from the 1880s Everyone Should Know

Find Out What’s the Closest Nuclear Bunker to Your Home

A Green Beret’s guide to combat and shooting

The vital self-sufficiency lessons our great grand-fathers left us

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