Master The Survival Mindset
4 Steps To Activate The Optimal Survival Attitude When SHTF
In emergency survival situations, your mind can be your greatest ally or your fiercest enemy.
It can be that little voice that tells you it’s too hard, you need to stop, to give up. But it can also be the voice that tells you what you’re fighting for, that the pain is worth it, to keep going, to live.
Which will your mind be in a survival situation?
The only way to really answer that is to be face to face with a life and death situation. While you can never really know how you’ll react until that happens, there are some things you can do to prepare your survival mindset beforehand.
Keep reading to learn how to avoid panic and harness your body's stress response in the heat of the moment to survive emergency situations.
Does Attitude Really Matter In A Survival Situation?
Yes. Quite a bit, actually.
Simply put, your attitude can predetermine your success or failure. That’s true in the woods of the northwest, the streets of New York, and your tiny office cubicle.
The Right Attitude = Success
The Wrong Attitude = Failure
That truth is perfectly stated in a quote attributed to Henry Ford. - “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.”
If you keep telling yourself you’re gonna die... you probably will.
If you keep telling yourself you’re gonna survive... you probably will.
You can see the truth of that in so many survival stories. There are tons of stories about people who had that survival mindset, who didn’t accept defeat when all the odds were against them, and ended up surviving when it seemed like they shouldn’t have.
Learning From True Stories Of Survival
Roger Dannen said during his survival ordeal in a California desert, “By noon, I was out of food and water. I pushed all thoughts of death aside and pressed on. This desert wouldn’t kill me; I wouldn’t allow it.” - Lost and Injured in the Desert - Backpacker.com
"Thoughts of death"... sounds like someone who’s been lost for days. But actually, that moment happened only 24 hours after getting lost.
It’s hard to imagine that even experienced outdoorsmen can go from enjoying a day hike to fighting off thoughts of death in a matter of hours. But that’s exactly what happens in a lot of survival situations.
That’s why you need to prepare your survival mindset before you’re fighting for your life.
Is It Possible To Prepare For Something Like That?
Absolutely. If you practice the survival mindset, in a high-stress survival situation it’ll be easier to:
- Calm your mind and body
- Fight off negative, defeatist attitudes
- Make good decisions
- Use your survival skills
- Have the grit to continue and not give up
So it’s obvious that preparing to have the right survival mindset is important. And that preparation starts with understanding what happens to your mind and body when in a high-stress survival situation.
Understanding Your Mind & Body In An Emergency
Stress... it's not a popular word these days. But really, your body’s stress response — often called the fight or flight response — is actually an important evolutionary adaptation for survival.
With the right training, you can use your body's stress response to your advantage. The tricky part is managing it so you don’t let it go too far.
An appropriate amount of stress can be a good thing in an emergency. It can make you alert, attentive, and aware of potential dangers.
But if you let your stress run wild, you'll start to panic. Panic is never a good thing. Panic throws reason out the window and leads to bad choices.
A little stress can be good. Panic is bad.
So to keep that fight or flight response in check, you need to understand what’s happening in your body and how to use it to your advantage. Let's take a little anatomy tour to learn more.
Your Brain On Panic
It all starts with the hypothalamus. Although it sounds like a distant cousin of the hippopotamus, the hypothalamus is actually a part of your brain that, among other things, helps regulate hormone secretion.
When you come face to face with a threat your hypothalamus is like, “Whoa! We better do something about this!” It then triggers your adrenal gland to start pumping out adrenaline and cortisol.
Basically, adrenaline and cortisol are like NOS for your body. 🤣
Adrenaline boosts your heart rate, increases blood pressure, helps get glucose into your blood, and sends more blood to the large muscle groups.
Cortisol also increases the glucose in your blood and helps your brain use it more efficiently for energy. Plus, it slows down certain non-essential bodily functions so all your body’s resources are ready to deal with the threat.
Pretty cool, right?
Your Body On Panic
So as cortisol and adrenaline get released into your system, here are some things you’ll start to notice.
- Your heart starts to beat faster
- You start to breathe faster
- Your pupils dilate and your visual scope narrows so you can zero in on the threat
- You start to feel energized (like you’ve had a couple of shots of espresso)
- You’ve got the power for big movements, like running or building a shelter
- You lack the coordination for intricate hand movements, like getting out your bear spray or tying knots
As you face a potential threat, it’s important to be aware of what’s happening to your body. That way you can keep a positive survival attitude and start to follow the steps in the next section.
TIP: Try to notice how you feel during the fight or flight response in everyday life, like when you’re about to give a presentation in front of an audience, when you almost have a traffic accident, or when you need to fight your buddy for the last beer in the cooler.
4 Steps To Master The Survival Mindset
Just realized you’re lost in the woods? Starting to notice the signs of your body’s stress response? How are you going to maintain the right survival mindset?
Here are 4 concrete steps to take in order to use your mind as your ally instead of letting it become your enemy.
The steps are easy to remember... just think "STOP": Stop. Think. Observe. Plan.
Unless you’re in immediate danger and need to take off running, just stop for a moment. Most people panic in an emergency and act without thinking, which can make the situation worse.
So physically stop moving. Stand still or sit down. Be quiet and breathe.
Take a few deep breaths in and out through your nose. Make sure they’re long deep breaths. Start by filling your diaphragm and then continue all the way up to your upper chest. Hold it for a moment. Then slowly let the air out in reverse order. Wait a second or two before taking another breath.
Here's a simple breathing exercise that works great:
What's So Great About Breathing?
Taking deep breaths activates your parasympathetic nervous system (the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system which is involved in the fight or flight response). This helps lower your heart rate and calm you enough to keep a clear head.
While you are breathing, take a few minutes to identify your thoughts, feelings, and body sensations. Notice signs of your body's stress response such increased heart rate.
Stopping like this helps you maintain the proper survival mindset and avoid making some bad decisions that’ll have big consequences later.
Step 1: STOP
- Physically pause, stand still or sit down for a few minutes
- Take several deep breaths or run through your favorite breathing routine
- Identify thoughts, feelings, and sensations in your body
- Recognize signs of your body’s stress response
Now that you’ve stopped, taken a few breaths, and avoided that initial panic, you can think. It’s time to approach your situation logically, not with a bunch of panicky emotions.
Here are some things to think about:
Think Positive Thoughts
Don’t start repeating negative affirmations. None of this… “I’m lost. Oh no, I am gonna die out here. No one’s ever gonna find me. It’s getting dark. I hate the dark! I am such an idiot!”
If you start down that path to negative thought patterns in the initial stages of a survival situation, how will you ever stay positive after several hours (or days) of dehydration, hunger, and sleep deprivation?
So recognize negative thoughts. Stop them. Get them out of your head and immediately replace them with positive thoughts:
“I will figure this out. I am not going to panic. I’ve got a lot of things I can use to survive. I’ve trained for this and I can handle it. I can do this.”
A positive attitude is super important for having the motivation necessary to keep going. And positive thoughts are the fuel for that positive attitude.
Remember Your "Why"
Remind yourself of the reasons why you need to control your stress response, make good decisions, endure hardships, and survive. Maybe it’s your friends, your partner, your family, your kids, your dog.
Visualize yourself coming out the other side of the ordeal and hugging your family and friends. Visualize your next family dinner. Use those thoughts as fuel to stay on track, stay positive, and not give up.
Step 2: THINK
- Identify negative thoughts and let them pass
- Replace them with positive thoughts
- Remember your "why"
Now that you’ve calmed your mind and directed your thoughts, the next step in maintaining a proper survival mentality is to observe.
Take a look around. Try to figure out where you are and what you’re up against. Make sure you understand what you have going for you and any possible challenges you’ll soon face.
Assess Your Needs
As you observe and assess your immediate needs and the needs of your group, remember the Rule of 3's. You can survive...
- 3 minutes without air
- 3 hours in an extreme environment (extreme cold or heat)
- 3 days without water
- 3 weeks without food
You can use this simple rule to assess prioritize your basic needs that are essential for your survival.
Identify what your situation is, without jumping ahead to making plans just yet. Are you lost? Is someone injured? How much food and water do you have? What time of day is it? How far are you from civilization? What kind of weather might be coming up?
Look through your supplies and your surroundings to see what might be useful in resolving your situation.
Survey the area around you and think back on where you've been on your journey, making note of possible hazards and potential resources that you might be able to use.
Observe Your Group And Yourself
If you’re with a group, chances are you’ll observe someone panicking. Help them S.T.O.P. and get in the right survival mindset.
You should also observe yourself. Are you injured? The rush of adrenaline and cortisol can dull the pain of an injury and you might not notice it for a while. So if you’ve had some kind of accident, give yourself a once over and make sure you don’t need any immediate first aid.
It’s also important to keep observing your own mental reaction. Are you starting to panic? Maybe you need to repeat step 1 again.
Step 3: OBSERVE
- Observe where you are. Where am I? Where did I come from? Which way is north? What do I see around me? Where was the last sign of civilization?
- Observe your situation. Which needs from the Rule of 3's is most urgent? How prepared am I? What supplies do I have? Does anyone know where I am?
- Observe your group. Is anyone injured? Is anyone panicking? Does anyone have special needs?
- Observe yourself. Am I injured? Am I panicking? Am I hot/cold? How well hydrated am I?
By now your survival mindset is taking shape. You’ve stopped yourself from panicking, directed your thoughts to positive things, and observed your situation. Now it’s time to plan.
Armed with your positive thought patterns and an assessment of your situation, plan what you’ll do to survive. Your plans will depend on your circumstances.
- Did you notice an injury on yourself or someone else? Plan how to apply first aid or how to call for help.
- Are you almost certain you just made one wrong turn a few minutes back? Can you clearly follow your trail? Then plan to backtrack.
- Did you realize that you are 100% completely and utterly lost? Then it’s probably best to plan to stay put.
- Did you observe nighttime falling or bad weather coming? Plan to build a shelter.
Make Short-Term And Long-Term Plans
It's a good idea to make an initial plan to deal with urgent needs and try to resolve your emergency as quickly as possible. And while you are executing your short-term plan, start to think about how you will handle worst-case scenarios and long-term survival if needed.
If you’ve got plenty of daylight and good weather and are in a well-traveled area, then your initial plan might focus on finding people or other signs of civilization.
But if you’re really lost in a remote area, are losing daylight, and dealing with bad weather, then your planning strategies should change. You need to think about the Rule of 3's. Now it’s time to start planning a shelter, plan how to stay dry and warm, and plan how to stay hydrated.
Get the idea?
Step 4: PLAN
- Consider the observations you made and prioritize your needs
- Identify solutions for your needs and plan how to achieve those solutions with what you have
- Make a short-term plan first to address urgent needs
- Brainstorm long-term survival plans and solutions for worst-case scenarios while you execute your short-term plan
It’s much easier to keep the right survival mindset if you’re well prepared. Check out our other two articles about the 10 Essentials you should always have and the Most Important Survival Skill.
The S.T.O.P. protocol is not a one-time solution. It is meant to be repeated often.
In a real-life emergency, the situation will be constantly changing, and you will need to "S.T.O.P." frequently to maintain your survival mindset.
Every time you S.T.O.P. and make a plan, do it with an understanding that it will likely change. And that's ok! In fact, it is to be expected. All you have to do is S.T.O.P. again and make the necessary adjustments.
One Final Tip for Developing Your Survival Mindset
Practice it every day.
Don’t wait until you’re in a backcountry emergency to develop your survival mindset. Work on your survival mindset in everyday stressful situations.
- Dealing with a grumpy boss? Take a few deep breaths. Don’t get on the negativity train. Observe what you have to work with. And plan how you’ll deal with it.
- Got laid off from your job? Don’t panic, just S.T.O.P.
- Car break down? Stop. Think. Observe. Plan.
- Screaming kids? You know what to do...
If you practice your survival attitude in situations like these, then in a wilderness survival situation your mind will be a strong ally, ready to help you survive!