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Simple Survival Psychology Part 1

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(c) 2003 Gary L. Benton

When I was in the military and involved with search and rescue training, I often saw messages or reports pertaining to survivors and non-survivors. These cases were both civilians and military personnel. I was amazed while reading both types of correspondence. (We received this information to hopefully improve our survival training program). I read about people who had lots of gear, plenty of food and water, and they still did not make it. Or, on the other side of the coin, those who survived with little more than literally the shirt on their backs. Why the difference? Well, it is not that simple. There were many factors that contributed in both cases. There are many variables to consider when reading about survival situations. Nonetheless, in most of the reports I read the difference was usually survival psychology.

Take the case of the civilian pilot in Alaska that experienced aircraft problems and put his plane down on a frozen lake. The temperature was about minus twenty. When rescuers arrived at the site they were able to determined what happen easily. The pilot, now dead, had left a note. I cannot remember most of the note, but it read something similar to; "I cannot survive in this temperature. I am a dead man. I am going to smoke a cigarette and then end it all." It was very unfortunate. The aircraft controller had seen the aircraft go off radar and had been able to communicate with the pilot just before he landed on the lake. Once on the lake the pilot had shut down his aircraft power and the controller was unable tell him that help was on the way. When the rescuer team arrived, they found two cigarette butts, a .38 caliber pistol in the pilots right hand, and blood not yet frozen on the side of his head. He had not even left the cockpit of the aircraft. Why? Why would a man take his life without a fight? I suggest he gave in to panic. He was not prepared mentally to face the situation.

I also read once about a man who crawled for more than 100 miles across the Arizona desert to safety. His car had broken down on a rural road and he attempted a shortcut to safety. It was over 100 degrees during the five days of his travels. He was burned black from the sun, very dehydrated, and near death when he walked out. He stated he was determined to be with his family again and used this determination to keep himself moving. Doctors and survival experts were surprised of his survival. The man should have by all rights died. He had done everything wrong (traveling during the heat of the day, not covering up exposed parts of his body, and not being properly prepared) and yet he made it. Now, I don't recommend you attempt that for obvious reasons, but it does show how human determination can aid your survival efforts.

So, what is the big difference in the two stories above? I propose it is frame of mind. One, the non-survivor, gave up before the battle even started. The other, the survivor, was determined to live. Of course pure determination may not keep you alive, but it sure adds to the odds. Lets discuss the steps you can take to stay alive when you realize you are in a survival situation.

Panic is a real killer. When you actually realize you are going to have to survive, keep you head about yourself. Stop. Find a place that offers you temporary shelter and think things out. Do not go stomping around in the woods looking for your way out. Stop. Consider the, who, what, when, and where of your situation. Who knows where you are? Did you, as I always recommend, tell someone about your trip? This should always be done, even if you know the area very well. Tell a any person (a boss, friend, wife, husband, etc.) the what, when and where of your trip. They should know what type of trip it is (fishing, hunting, hiking, or travel), when you left and when you will return (i.e., I will leave on Tuesday morning and will return seven days later on Tuesday evening), and where your trip is to be (to the Knockemstiff National Forest or to Lake Swampy). Make sure if you change your trip in any way to call or contact the person you informed. Many rescues are started each year because of a change in plans and no notification. If you have handled the who, what, when and where of your trip, rescue should be fast.

Get your thoughts organized. Unless you are suicidal, this step is a must. Take an inventory of what you have on hand. This step serves two purposes. First, it calms you down. The time it takes to inventory your gear will assist in deescalating your panic. Second, most of us carry a lot of "junk" as well as needed items with us and this is a time to see exactly what you have. All items on you can be used toward survival.

Keep busy. An active mind is less likely to dwell on the situation as hopeless. Notice I wrote hopeless and not helpless. In a helpless situation, there is no help. While you very well may feel helpless, you can help yourself. But, in a hopeless situation there is no hope. I think you always have hope, as long as you are breathing. Keeping that hope is what makes a survival situation develop into a story of success. Concentrate on the little successes you experience and let the failures slide off. And, don't start feeling sorry for yourself. See, the more little successes you have the better you will feel. Start with something small, like a fire and a shelter.

Find a shelter and start a fire. Yep, even if you don't need either. Why? Well, once again for two reasons. The first is to keep you busy as I stated above. The second is they may be needed later when you are too exhausted or weak to make them. Additionally, there is a deep primal need for safety satisfied when you have shelter and fire. Ever notice how comforting a campfire is at night? The fire may not even be needed, so the comfort is usually just psychological. Anywho, get a fire going, construct a shelter, and sit for a bit.

Oh, I almost forgot, avoid alcohol when in a survival situation. If dulls your thinking processes and that is one thing you don't need (additionally alcohol dehydrates) . Second, avoid cola's, coffee, and tea if you do not have a sufficient water supply. They can aid in your dehydration.

Now comes the difficult part, waiting for rescue. You noticed, I hope, I wrote waiting for rescue. Yep, I meant it. Let them find you. Nothing is more frustrating to search and rescue crews than looking for a person meandering somewhere in the woods. It is really like looking for a needle in a haystack and may lead to your death. Stay where you are. Once you realize you are lost and have establish a survival camp stay there. Being rescued is often compared to looking for someone in the mall. If you wonder around looking for them, they are more difficult to find. But, if you plant yourself on a bench in the mall walk way, they will come by sooner or later. Wondering blind in the bush just uses up energy that you cannot afford to lose. Stay put.

The only exception to this is when you realize exactly where you are and know beyond any doubt how to walk out. If you do decide to leave a survival site, leave a note stating when you left (date/time), where you were headed (location you are attempting to get to), when you expect to get there, your heading (compass heading if you can), your physical condition (broken bones, cuts, overall general condition) and your full name. Make sure you post your note where it can easily be seen and in a water proof container/bag. This info will aid the rescue team greatly. Remember, I recommend you leave the survival site ONLY if you are sure of where you are and know how to safely get out.

Continued in Part 2

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