Survival Psychology: The Most Important Survival Skill

Survival Psychology: The Most Important Survival Skill

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      This post “Stay calm and think clearly” (from the Wilderness Survival page of The One Stop Survival Preparedness Guide by Craig Nicholson) is long, but it is probably the most important point of all. Experience has shown that survival is largely based on your mindset. Some of the biggest mistakes in survival situations are made out of fear, panic or a negative attitude. Laurence Gonzales has written several books on survival psychology. In his research, he came across many cases in which people had survived extensive periods without any equipment, and others where people had perished with all the right equipment available. (See book list below.) The human body is very rugged. It is often the mind that succumbs first.

Staying calm and thinking clearly in a survival situation is easier said than done. It will be much easier if you have read books on survival, as you are now doing. Plus, you will also make it much easier for others to stay calm if they see that you are calm, and that you know something about survival. Knowledge is the first step. Training is the second. If you have been on survival training courses or spent a lot of time camping in the wilderness, you will have some experience of how to put the theory into practice. But most of all, it is your psychology or mindset that will determine how well you survive. This will depend partly on your ability to operate under stressful situations, on your adaptability and flexibility, and on your will and determination to survive.

There are other emotions besides fear and panic that people may experience in a survival situation. These include anger, loneliness, guilt, hopelessness, and depression. They will all need to be dealt with if they arise. Preparing for them, as mentioned above, can make all the difference.

Below are some tips and strategies for helping you develop a survival mindset:


Keep it simple. John Leach is a psychology professor at Lancaster University who has conducted some of the only research on the mental, emotional, and psychological elements of survival. In his book, Survival Psychology, he writes: “Debriefings of survivors show repeatedly that they possess the capacity to break down the event they are faced with into small, manageable tasks” (Hardcover – Oct 1, 1994. Currently out of print). Identify what is most needed, and do it one simple step at a time. If you are the leader of a group, assign others simple tasks to do as well. This helps keep them focused and not worrying about the future. This point is critical in sea survival when you can have eight people in an eight-man life raft. If they have nothing to do, they can start feeling stressed out and more prone to feel sea-sick than they would otherwise be.

Have a Plan B available. This point is critical in aviation safety, but it applies to all safety and survival situations. When people are in a stressful or dangerous situation they can easily become totally preoccupied about the challenge in front of them, and it cuts out the alternatives that may be their way to safety. For instance, if a pilot is flying in bad weather below the clouds (when flying on his instruments in the clouds is not an option), the weather can slowly deteriorate, forcing him lower where forward visibility is worse. If he has a Plan B already in place, it is easy to decide at a predetermined visibility and height above ground to turn around and divert to the alternate airport. But, without a Plan B, it is like having no options, so you press on ahead until your safety or even your life is at risk. You can apply this to any survival situation.

Captain your own ship. You are the captain of your own life. You are responsible for taking control of your life and what happens in it. If you do not have this attitude, it is easy to fall into the victim mode of blaming others or outside circumstances. This sometimes seems like an easy way out, but in a survival situation it can severely compromise your chances of surviving. So use survival psychology to your advantage and take control. It will be very liberating. However, if you are in a group, this does not mean dominating others. It means being a responsible and helpful team player.


Beware of Denial. It’s easy to get lost and not want to admit it. Men are notorious for it [according to women, anyway : ) ]. But, pressing on can get us into real trouble, especially in the wilderness. It’s best to put our pride in our pocket and admit what has happened, be it getting lost or whatever. We all make mistakes and we hopefully all learn from them.


You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself. “I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.” – Eleanor Roosevelt.


       See FEAR for what it is. It is too late to wait until you are in a survival situation to start dealing with your fears. So make time to do it now! A lot can be said about the powers of the mind. There are books and organizations on positive thinking, meditation and strategies for success. They all involve the power of creating and attracting to ourselves that we put our attention on and imagine that it is going to happen. One of the keys is that you get much better results the more you involve your emotions. You have to get excited and passionate about what you want to become or to manifest. It just so happens that fear is an extremely powerful form of meditation, engaging very powerful emotions and using your imagination about what may happen, and thus attracting it into your life.

There is obviously a “helpful” kind of fear, that when confronted with a physically dangerous situation, like we are about to get run over by something, we get that adrenaline rush that helps us get out of the way faster. But most fear is only an imagined belief that something bad will happen. The worst things happen in the mind (and on the movie screens, of course, as part of the entertainment industry cashes in on our weaknesses). If you reflect honestly on your past, I’m sure you will realize that the worst things you have feared have never come to pass.

Fear is a lot like darkness. It is not actually “something” but the lack of something. So fear is just a lack of understanding. And when we understand the world better, we develop faith.

“Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.” – Marie Curie
       This imagined belief that something bad will happen is a kind of faith. Faith basically means believing in something, usually that we cannot see or know with our physical senses. So it is not only religious people who have faith. People who have a lot of fear basically have faith that bad things will happen, and they are engaging in strong but negative meditation.

Another example which illustrates faith and the power of our minds is the placebo effect, where people take a pill believing that it will work, and they sometimes do, only to find out later that the pill was an empty mock-up of the real one. There is an excellent and eye-opening chapter on the placebo effect in the book The Holographic Universe by Michael Talbot.

“Fear is only as deep as the mind allows.” – Japanese proverb.
       The bottom line is that our minds are much more powerful that what we realize, and that we are the only ones who determine what we become by disciplining our minds on what to stay focused on. What we are today is a result of all of our thoughts of the past, which has led to our actions of the past, and we need to take full responsibility for them. This is a great step forward in obtaining the survival mindset. It helps us to take responsibility for our present situation, without blaming or complaining, and to take effective action to bring about the needed results.

“Every one who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe – a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble.” – Albert Einstein
       If you are spiritually inclined, belief in God or in something much bigger than us can help greatly in overcoming fear. They say that things (problems and challenges) are sent to try us, and it is not so much what happens to us but how we react to what happens to us that really counts. Prayer and faith can also help greatly in a survival situation, as long as we remember that faith is not a replacement for practical action but a partner to it. If you’re not part of an organized religion, just call to God or to the angels. Archangel Michael is the prince of the Archangels and the Archangel of protection.

“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment.” – Jesus
       Ultimately, there is no guarantee that you will be prepared well enough for a survival situation or deal successfully with one once you are in it, and you just have to trust in God and His grace and mercy to see you through.