The Will to Survive

Hope, understanding the mind body connection and strengthening the survival mindset.

By Bethany Bowater

Photo by Tntk

Three weeks without food, three days without water, three seconds without hope. Under extreme conditions this is how long humans can survive without these essential components. Hope is a mindset and arguably one of the most precious survival resources available. It can be defined as a combination of optimism and realism and may best be understood by way of the “Stockdale Paradox.” The name refers to Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was the highest-ranking United States military officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam War. During his eight-year imprisonment from 1965 to 1973, Stockdale was tortured, starved, stripped of his rights, had no set release date, and no certainty as to whether he would survive to see his family again. When asked in an interview, “who were the ones who didn’t make it?” His response was, “The optimists.” Hope doesn’t replace preparation and hard work. Relying on false hope and the utilization of denial as a coping strategy is dangerous. Through his experience, Stockdale determined that a survivor “must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time, have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be” as written in Jim Collins’ bestselling book, Good to Great.

A survivor is adaptable and resilient. They possess a keen ability to see the big picture while focusing on small and obtainable goals towards progress; refusing to be discouraged by setbacks. A survivor will do whatever necessary to overcome any challenge; they don’t know quit. Simultaneously, a survivor is acutely aware of the reality they face, if they are lost, they recognize and accept that they are lost. If they are injured, they accept that they are injured. Acceptance of reality prompts action necessary for survival.

Maintaining hope in a survival situation can quite literally be the difference between life and death. “Give-up-itis” is a term that was coined by medical officers during the Korean War. They described it as a condition where a person develops extreme apathy, gives up hope, relinquishes the will to live and dies, despite the lack of an obvious physical cause. This concept is described in more detail in the article Give-up-itis: when people just give up and die by John Leach, a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the University of Portsmouth. The medical officers witnessed some of the prisoners within just a few weeks, begin to refuse food and become mute and unresponsive before they “turned their faces to the wall” and died. The result of losing hope or surrendering to give-up-itis is psychogenic death or, in other words, literally thinking oneself to death. Our minds have profound capabilities to control our bodies, understanding the mind-body connection and our instinctual stress responses is one of the best ways to prepare for and increase chances of survival.

     When humans experience stress or encounter danger, our sympathetic nervous system, or what I call our primitive brain, takes control. The amygdala is considered the center of the brains defense system. As advanced as us humans feel we are, when it comes down to it, we are just animals. When we sense danger, our response is primal. In a survival situation the amygdala signals our body to prepare for fight, flight, or freeze. In doing so, physiological and hormonal changes happen involuntarily. Our blood pressure and heart rate increase to supply more oxygen to our major muscle groups, pain perception lowers, hearing sharpens and vision narrows by almost 70%, according to Psychology of Survival by Robert B. Kauffman.

Cortisol released from the adrenal gland interferes with the capacity for complex reasoning and problem solving. These changes make us intensely aware of danger while inhibiting the mind from taking the time to access long term memory. This makes it possible to react in an instant. This is one reason why practicing a skill until it becomes muscle memory can be hugely beneficial in stressful situations. This primal response to stress is key to survival, however, after a traumatic incident or under situations of consistent stress, the bodies nervous system can get stuck in panic mode or in a chronic state of fight or flight. If stuck in this state, the survivor will have a more difficult time with problem solving and the use of logic and reasoning, making it difficult to maintain a positive mental attitude, plan, prepare and take action. One way to combat this is to strengthen the parasympathetic nervous system.

The parasympathetic nervous system is the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system. It is designed to calm the body down after a stressful situation or remain calm when faced with danger. The Vagus Nerve is the longest cranial nerve found only in mammals. It connects the brain stem to the rest of the body. A healthy Vagus Nerve means calmer responses to stress and increased resilience. As stated above, a survivor’s ability to pull through trauma and bounce back from failure or disappointment is critical. It doesn’t take the biggest, strongest, or most skilled survivor to overcome the most extreme and dire circumstances, it takes true grit and the mastery of psychological strength.

Outlined here are some suggestions to help strengthen the survival mindset and increase resilience and mental fortitude. These are tools that will not only help you in your everyday life, but, in the case of an extreme emergency or survival situation, could determine the outcome for better or worse.

Preparation- Knowledge of the environments, terrain, natural resources, threats, shelter building, fire craft, food and water procurement, etc. are all extremely beneficial skills for a survivor’s toolkit. Practicing the skills to muscle memory will assist the survivor in responding appropriately when the fight/flight response is engaged. Remember, knowledge is beneficial, but application is best. Continuously find ways to challenge your skills and mindset. Pursue activities in your daily life that push you outside of your comfort zone and present the risk of failure. The goal is to experience failure, disappointment and stress as often as possible in a safe and controlled environment. Exposure training in therapy is a leading intervention in overcoming anxiety and phobias, guiding individuals on how to better control their stress response. In military SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) programs, students are exposed to the discomforts of wilderness survival, simulated capture and resistance, simulated downed aircrafts and under water egress. These scenarios are designed to test their knowledge, apply their skills and train their brains to respond appropriately to intense and dangerous situations. Virtual exposure therapy is being utilized by the Navy Seals to train for combat in studies for prevention of post-traumatic stress disorder. All of this training is designed to prepare and strengthen the survival mindset and increase one’s ability to bounce back quickly. There are other opportunities to help manage and strengthen the stress response is through meditation, yoga and martial arts. All of these activities help one practice mindfulness of the mind-body connection, strengthen the Vagus Nerve and develop the skills to regulate the nervous system and increase resilience from trauma/stress.

Planning- Develop courses of action and determine what you need in order to execute them. Supplies, currency, logistics, medical, communication etc. Be constantly conscious of what could go wrong and whether you are prepared to handle it appropriately. Have a plan as well as a contingency plan. When the situation changes, have a well thought out strategy of where to go, how to meet needs, mentally cope and more. Remember, it is better to have a plan and not need it, then need a plan and not have it. Keep your head on a swivel, pay attention to detail and continue to assess danger and plan accordingly. The benefits of planning are that it provides the survivor with direction, confidence, stability and reinforces the positive mental attitude and the will to survive.

Execution- When you experience conflict or disappointment in everyday life, how high does your stress meter get? If you find yourself losing your cool often, staying upset, or ruminating on the negative, you may not do as well in a survival situation as you might think. When failures, setbacks, or disappointing events happen, I encourage you to notice what is happening with regard to that mind-body connection. First, do a body scan. Start from the top of your head and notice everything that is happening within your body. Is your face hot/flushed? Is your jaw tight? Is your heart beating faster? Is your stomach in a knot? What is happening to your body temperature, knees, fingers and toes? Pausing and practicing this mindfulness technique will begin to calm the nervous system down. Another way to strengthen your Vagus Nerve is through diaphragmatic breathing exercises.

Here is an example of how to engage in a diaphragmatic breathing, from an article by Theodora Blanchfield, AMFT, a marriage and family therapist trainee as well as a mental health writer.

How to do diaphragmatic breathing (deep breathing)

  1. Begin with one hand over the heart and one hand over the belly.
  2. Breathe in through your nose and let the air fill your belly. Keep your hands on your heart and belly and observe how the one on your belly moves while the one on your heart should stay the same.
  3. Draw your navel in towards your spine as you exhale as if you were blowing out birthday candles.
  4. Feel as the hand on your belly slides down to its original position.
  5. Repeat this three to five times to start, noting how you feel after each time

Next do a mind scan. What is your self-talk like? Do you speak to yourself with compassion, understanding and encouragement or do you call yourself names and have self-defeating thoughts? Many people struggle with cognitive distortions, or thoughts that are extremely unhelpful and self- deprecating. Here is a list of just a few:

Polarized thinking: “All or nothing” or black and white thinking patterns, inability to acknowledge that two things can be true at once.

Overgeneralization: Focusing on a negative event and making conclusions based on that single piece of negative evidence.

Catastrophizing: When a thought is over-exaggerated or diminished. Instantly believing the worst-case scenario will happen with little evidence to support the thought. Or minimization of the positives.

Control Fallacies: Control fallacies can go two ways. An individual either feels responsible for everything and holds all the control or blame when things don’t go right, or the individual believes they have no control over anything that occurs in their life.

Heaven’s Reward Fallacy: The belief that good things will happen to good people or that one will be rewarded based on how hard they work. This cognitive distortion will leave its believers constantly disappointed, frustrated and even resentful.

How many of these cognitive distortions do you fall prey to in everyday life? Our thoughts have an impact on our behaviors as well as our feelings and mood. The moment negative thoughts, self-doubt, or cognitive distortions enter your mind it is important to quickly reverse it into a more adaptive and helpful thought. For example, change “I won’t ever get this fire started” to “I didn’t get this fire started this time, let me come back to it and try again.” Assess how well you handled that stressful situation and decide how you can adapt and do better next time.

Adaptation- Constantly analyzing and monitoring your reactions and making necessary changes to be more successful. Heighten your awareness of how you respond to stress. Maybe log it in a journal. Take note of what happens in your body and practice different techniques to find which ones works best for you. Reassess early and often during your preparation, planning and execution to see where you need to improve and then tackle it.

Understanding the psychology of survival and developing a stout survival mindset is an invaluable resource for anyone who finds themselves in an extreme or dangerous situation. It has been consistently proven that no matter the size, age, physical strength or skillset a person possesses, if the individual loses hope and the will to survive, their chances diminish greatly. The human mind is profound in its ability push through and overcome the most austere circumstances. The body’s natural defense system is nothing short of a real-life superpower. Understanding the mind/body connection and working to become a psychological juggernaut takes practice and consistency. The tools and techniques discussed within this article to develop a healthy nervous system will increase resiliency and improve the overall mental health of those who practice them. Whether we find ourselves in the elements, battling mother nature or surviving a world that is growing more uncertain every day, a survivor will never discount the importance of mental fortitude and developing the survival mindset in all that they do.