We all like to think that if it came to the crunch we would strive to survive and that we would not just give up and die. Sadly this is often not the case as many disasters are full of tales of how people just give up and die and it can be surprising on how many people actually do this in an emergency. An unconfirmed story tells of how a passenger airliner crashes in the sea, and many of the passengers seeing the plane go under the water don't even try to escape and are found with seatbelts still tied often holding hands with a loved one. While those that tried to escape found themselves only a 100 meters from the shore and help. Although this seems unlikely psychological research has often show this to be the case. On the other side of the coin the human body is capable of incredible feats of survival when the person involves doesn't give up. In modern times one of the best examples of this can be seen in the film "Touching the Void" a dramatised documentary about a climbing expedition in the Andes which goes horribly wrong. One British climber broke his leg badly in a fall near the summit and during the attempt to return to camp his partner was forced to cut the rope, which in complete darkness dropped him into a deep crevasse. Believed to be dead he knew no aid was coming, frozen with no food or water and a badly broken leg he then proceeded to crawl his way back to base camp which he reached days later and fully physically recovered from his ordeal. All this is inspiring and interesting but how do we react to an emergency situation and how can we prepare ourselves mentally to be the survivor if the worse happens.
Firstly it is important to consider the affects of fear upon a person. Everyone gets afraid if someone tells you they aren't afraid of anything they are either lying or an idiot. What's important is recognising the fear, separating what's rational (realistic) fear and what's irrational fear and using your fear to help not paralyse you. Uncontrolled fear leads to panic and irrational and possibly dangerous behaviour, controlled your fear will boost your body's strength and endurance with a flood of adrenaline hormone. Uncontrolled fear in a survival situation can lead to the following;
- Angry or violent outbursts
- Selfish behaviour, not willing to share resources, or work as a team
- Suicidal thoughts, people just giving up and dying or seeking death
- Low motivation or energy levels
- Carelessness or mistakes
When in a life threatening situation the body will release adrenaline hormone, this is often called the fight or flight hormone and is designed to prepare the body for escape or combat. Heart rate increases, as do energy levels as circulation speeds up moving more oxygen through the body and the body releases energy reserves, physical strength actually increases but mental focus can decrease as what is often described as a "red mist " descends clouding judgement, as the body wants action NOW not careful planning. This burst of energy wont last long and a prolonged period will lead to exhaustion so the survivor must make best use of this free burst of energy while it lasts to prepare shelter, escape from immediate danger etc. It is important to recognise this survival rush as what it is and act accordingly.
After the initial danger is passed longer-term psychological stressors set in, the most dangerous being isolation. Human being are naturally social creatures and prolonged periods of isolation can be very psychologically harmful. Completely isolated from human contact the survivor can become paranoid or give in to feelings of desperation as they feel that no one is looking for them and rescue will never come. There are ways to counter this, a constant effort to keep busy and improve the survivor's situation by building a more elaborate shelter or signal fires can offset the desperation and the creation of an imaginary friend often focused on an inanimate object or even a persons faith talking to their god can all help. People often find creative or survival skills they did not know they possessed and it is important that any set backs are seen as temporary or depression can set in. During any survival situation the person involved will face set backs these can seem major at the time but in the long run are not important such as a caught animal prey escaping, a rope snapping or a shelter leaking. It is how people move on from minor set backs, which determines survival.
Guilt can also be a psychological problem for lone survivors. The question arises in their mind of "Why me?" Faced with the death of comrades or loved ones it is a natural human reaction to wonder why others have died and they have not, a sort of "I'm not worthy " mentality. This can be used in a positive sense, if people see themselves as now owing a debit to those who died to survive and striving harder to survive to honour the dead. Again for those of a religious outlook it can be that they believe that their god has spared them for a reason, what ever works is fine. There are ways in which you can prepare yourself psychologically in a survival situation;
- Focus on family, pets or personal faith
- Be realistic about what you can achieve but not defeatist, hope for the best but prepare for the worst better to be surprised by minor victories than depressed at failure
- Try to maintain a positive attitude
- Remember what's at stake, how your friends/ family will miss you if you just give up
- Learn to take pleasure in your surroundings and have time in the day to switch off and relax
Hopefully none of you will need this advice but it is important to remember than more often than not a person's strength of will can be more important than pure physical strength.