What is Survival Psychology?
We often hear that survival is “99% mental”, you have to have the “will to live”, the “will to survive”. All of these statements are too vague to actually be useful. They are catchy enough and make a person sound like they gave an answer while offering nothing quantifiable to the person with the original question.
These are canned answers with an easy-open lid and an easy-pour spout that spill out effortlessly when the subject of Survival Psychology comes up.
What do they actually mean? There are 24 hours in a day… does “99% mental” mean that I really only need to do physical tasks to effect my survival for 0.25 hours of that and all should go well as long as I keep a positive attitude and think about things for the other 23.75 hours? Does “will to live” mean that all I have to do is want to stay alive? Got it, I am there. Now what? How can I put that into action to save the life of myself or my family?
Our ability to survive depends on our willingness to adapt to our new environment and physically provide for our own needs, despite the conditions we face, for as long as it is necessary. Period.
What are those actual needs?
We are born with these needs, and we are alive today because we have consistently adapted to, or changed, our environment to provide for them.
Fundamentally, we need to maintain our body core temperature, stay hydrated, consume calories, and rest.
We, as a species, have “progressed” so far that we often don’t even think about what our needs actually are and how they are being provided for on a daily basis. Thermoregulation is maintained by a closet full of clothes, a 3-bedroom, 2-bath house, a pile of blankets, and a digital thermostat on the wall. Water comes at the turn of a faucet knob or twisting of a cap. Food is stockpiled in the fridge, cabinets, and freezer and when that runs short the grocery store is never far away and delivery is an option. We never really allow ourselves to be even remotely uncomfortable and many can’t fathom a situation in which we would ever be.
Our ability to provide for our needs has adapted to the availability of those modern comforts. Many no longer see the need to know how to start a fire and construct a shelter, procure water off the landscape and make it safe to drink, and trap, hunt, or fish for food, let alone clean, dress, and prepare it. We have been reduced to the end-user consumer in that process.
Why do we struggle during an emergency?
It is when we are taken out of the environment that we have adapted to over a long period of time; and are forced to quickly adapt to a new, often hostile, environment requiring skills we may not have; that we struggle.
Thermoregulation is no longer controlled by that thermostat on the wall of a house. There is no tap for water. The grocery store is not around the corner and nobody delivers out there. There is no GPS or road signs to lead you back. The Emergency Room is not down the road. Your cell phone is either dead or dying, if you even have signal to begin with. Your needs haven’t changed, just your circumstances.
Living is going to be harder for you, dying will be easy. So easy that you will have to physically focus your work to prevent that from happening. Its a race against time, and the clock has started.
You have to want to live. You have to want to adapt to your new reality. That is what is meant by having the “will to survive”. You have to maintain that “will to survive” despite physical, mental, and environmental hardships.
“Will”, in this context, is defined as the “power of choosing one’s own actions”. It is not enough to just choose to want to live. One has to choose to take the actions necessary to facilitate living. Those actions are physical actions that must be taken to provide for one’s needs. The opposite is also true, a person who chooses to not take those actions, who physically lays down and stops providing for their own needs, will likely succumb if not rescued.
Knowledge of self, knowing what you are made of, is a valuable lesson that can only be truly learned through facing challenges. When you are cold, wet, tired, hungry, and scared… that’s when you meet the real you.
How can we prepare?
Realistic training and repetition of basic survival skills, under stress, and in less than ideal conditions now will lessen the demand on you to adapt in such a condensed period of time later.
A true lesson in Survival Psychology can’t be taught on PowerPoint, it can only be learned in the field. It doesn’t matter what most people do or how most people react under certain circumstances, it matters what you do and how you react under those circumstances. How do you react to extreme temperatures, dehydration, food and sleep deprivation? Do you lay down and quit, stop providing for your needs? Do you get angry and frustrated, clouding your judgment? Or do you dig down deep and do what you have to do to stay alive?
If you have never physically been tested in these conditions, then you may be speaking out of theory rather than experience.
Courses taught by Flint & Steel Critical Skills Group and the Pathfinder School are designed to teach you valuable skills, as well as give you valuable experience, but the most important lesson is one we don’t necessarily teach–knowledge of self. It is one of the most valuable lessons you can possibly learn, and Mother Nature is the best teacher. All we do is set the conditions for you to meet her, and meet the real you in the process.