#1 Survival Skill: Survival Mindset And Reactions To Stress


Stranded Campfire
man staring camp fire

The survival mindset fascinates me, so I wanted to learn more about it. I’ve been through some pretty tough training in the military and the great outdoors, so I know one’s state of mind is crucial to the experience. I dug a little deeper into the survival mindset to quench my curiosity; here is what I found.  

“There is a psychology to survival. Soldiers in a survival environment face many stresses that ultimately impact the mind. These stresses can produce thoughts and emotions that, if poorly understood, can transform a confident, well-trained soldier into an indecisive, ineffective individual with questionable ability to survive.” (FM 21-76 U.S. Army Survival Manual)

What Is Pre-Survival Brain?

When we’re walking around experiencing ever day life our brains are calm, cool, and collected. What’s stressful about sitting down to a cup of coffee or eating lunch? This is what the everyday brain looks like:

The Everyday Brain

  • Relatively calm, peaceful, and curious. 
  • Not worried about making mistakes
  • Will Operate on the vagueness of understanding and environment. 
  • Open to new knowledge and can see the big picture.

In this mode, our nervous system is working normally. This is the brain our body likes to maintain.

What is Survival Brain?

The survival brain kicks in when we are under severe stress. We may be in unfamiliar surroundings and fear for our safety. This is what the survival brain looks like:

  • Lacks foresight or hyper-focused on perceived threats.
  • Fight or flight mode; brain dumps adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream. 
  • For a brief period, this is a good thing. You recognize something life-threatening; you stand and fight, or you high-tail it. 
  • If you stay in this mode, you become physically and mentally exhausted. 
  • You need to get the survival brain back into everyday mode ASAP. 
  • You can reset the brain to the normal mode by staying busy, creating shelter, finding food and water, and planning for your next move.
  • The longer the survival brain is turned on, the longer it takes to get back to regular brain function.

What is “stress” in a survival situation? 

Stress is the human reaction to pressure. Stress describes the experience we have physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually in response to perceived threats.

  • Stress can help you or hurt you
  • The goal is to have enough stress to be motivated, but not so much stress that you shut-down, or panic 

11 Signs Of Stress In A Survival Situation

Mountain climbers on a snow covered mountain

Making survival decisions when under stress can be difficult that is why you have to do something. Anything, to put you in a better position for survival. Signs that you are in stress:

  1. Difficulty making decisions
  2. Angry outbursts
  3. Forgetfulness
  4. Low Energy Level
  5. Constant Worry
  6. The tendency to make mistakes
  7. Trouble getting along with others
  8. Withdrawing from others
  9. Hiding from responsibilities
  10. Carelessness
  11. Feelings of Hopelessness

9 Stressors In A Survival Situation

The following stressors are present in most survival situations. How you react to stress will depend on varying factors, but the most important is your state of mind.   

  1. Pain– is the bodies warning signal that the body is injured  
  2. Heat– Heat can be an uncomfortable nuisance, or it can lead to life-threatening situations like dehydration and heatstroke.
  3. Cold– drain your energy, sluggish, freeze body parts, and drop your core body temperature.
  4. Death– This is #1 on the stressor list
  5. Uncertainty– You don’t know what is going to happen. You have no guarantees. The survival brain, really, really doesn’t like uncertainty. This can lead to anxiety.
  6. Environment– Icy Tundra, Sweltering Dessert, Freezing Mountains, Wind, and dangerous animals.  
  7. Hunger and thirst– you know you need to find food and water, this can cause anxiety if you have a difficult time finding either one.
  8. Fatigue– It is more difficult to maintain hope when you are exhausted. You could reach a point where staying awake is stressful. Fatigue can come from physical activity, lack of shelter, lack of food, or staying in fight or flight mode too long.
  9. Isolation– You are on your own; it’s just you; the cavalry isn’t coming.  

7 Common Reactions To Stress In A Survival Situation

Man climbing snow covered mountain in the dark

You are going to have some of these feelings. Expect them and know that you need to take action to get back to Coping with the situation. The best way to do this is by taking thoughtful action.

  1. Boredom and Loneliness– Can be a source of depression or a source of inner strength and self-discovery.
  2. Impatience– Rushing to do something can hurt your chances for survival, don’t make rash decisions, think about the implications of your actions
  3. Guilt– You may be mourning the death of others or feel guilty that you are among the few survivors. You can look at it like you will survive because you owe it to those who lost their lives.
  4. Anger– If you keep trying to hit a survival goal, but you can’t, your reaction may be to get angry or frustrated. Mistakes and failures are magnified in a survival situation which may lead to feelings of hopelessness if not controlled.
  5. Depression– Being sad is ok, but don’t let yourself sink into depression or apathy.
  6. Anxiety– An apprehension that can spur us to act in a dangerous situation, anxiety is the cousin of fear. Reduce anxiety and fear by taking action on the things you need to do to survive. Even small steps lead to rewards. You will feel like you have more control over the situation.
  7. Fear-Our reaction to a dangerous situation that could lead to panic; fear can cause you to be more cautious or reckless. Manage your fears.

You can overcome psychological reactions to stress by recognizing the problem, find alternate solutions, deciding on an action to take, and evaluating the results.

What Is The Psychological “Crisis Phase” In A Survival Situation?

  • The crisis phase is when you realize how bad the situation is.
  • You are living under conditions you aren’t used to, and nobody is coming to help.
  • The safety net is gone. 
  • The goal of survival is to spend as little time as possible in the crisis phase.

 The stressors that we talked about earlier can kick in. You have to keep a positive attitude and keep your hopes up so you can move into the coping phase.

The Coping Phase In A Survival Situation

The Coping phase is how you survive. 

  • You suppress the desire to freak out.
  • You look at the emergency, evaluate your options, and make sound decisions.
  • This doesn’t mean you won’t make mistakes.
  • You will probably bounce back and forth between the crisis and coping phases. 
  • You are suppressing your urge to panic. You are thinking your way through the situation, attempting to be rational.
  • You will have negative thoughts, but you don’t let them undermine you

In the Coping Phase, you are talking to yourself, trying to figure out the best plan of action. “Ok, this is an awful situation, but I’m not a quitter, I will cope with this. I’m going to figure this out. I’m going to take an inventory of what I have and what I need, and create a plan.”  

Hope And The Crisis Phase In A Survival Situation

Some individuals stay in the crisis phase because they feel that everything is hopeless. Even a little hope will get you moving towards the coping stage. 

Hope

The bridge between the crisis phase and the coping phase  

  • If you are Hopeless, you are passively taking what comes your way.
  • Your future is determined by your environment or those around you
  • Having hope doesn’t mean you are happy and super excited.
  • Hope means you can suppress fear, anxiety, and physical discomfort to take action towards surviving. 

I didn’t realize that people just give up in survival situations. I always imagined that people died in survival situations because of the physical environment or lack of resources. This isn’t always the case. 

There has to be hope or the will to survive.

Survival Mindset Scenarios

1.No Hope; Stuck in the Crisis Phase

“In the Canadian wilderness, a pilot ran into engine trouble and chose to dead-stick his plane onto a frozen lake, rather than punch out. After surveying the area, he noticed a wooded shoreline only 200 yards away from where food and shelter could be provided. Approximately halfway there, the pilot changed his mind and returned to the cockpit of his aircraft, where he smoked a cigar and then took his own life. Less than 24 hours later, a rescue team found him.”   4.2.2. (SERE) Operations Airforce Handbook 10-644

2. Hope; The Bridge From The Crisis Phase To The Coping Phase

“An Australian sergeant…bailed out of his aircraft and landed in the desert with both legs broken. He used his parachute to bind up his wounded legs but found he couldn’t stand. Knowing his need for medical attention and the unlikelihood of rescue forces finding him, he crawled, dragging his legs for four days and nights. The Sergeant couldn’t sleep at night due to a combination of anxiety and pain. He kept crawling, using the stars for navigation. He reached the point of total exhaustion on the fourth day and started, blacking in and out, and hallucinating. On the fourth day, he was found by a desert patrol. He had been without food or water for four days.”  The sergeant survived. (Figure 4-3) (SERE) Operations Airforce Handbook 10-644

“A key ingredient in any survival situation is the mental attitude of the individual(s) involved. Having survival skills is important; having the will to survive is Essential.” (U.S. Army Survival Manual, FM 21-76 Page 9)

Ray Mears’ Extreme Survival: Psychology of Survival

Desire For Comfort Is A Dangerous Mindset For Survival  

Many consider comfort a primary need, a requirement for survival. It is not. Thinking that it is a necessity is bad for your survival mindset.

  • Focus on survival; minimize discomfort but don’t obsess over it
  • Obsessing over comfort is a slow-burn to apathy and depression
  • Value life over comfort

Apathy Is Dangerous In A Survival Situation

  • Apathy is caused by a loss of hope or failure of the will to survive; it leads to giving up and doing nothing.
  • You become a victim of your environment.
  • Early survival planning will reduce the conditions that lead to apathy.

What Are The Signs Of Apathy In A Survival Situation?

  • Hopelessness
  • Drowsiness
  • Mental Numbness 
  • Indifference 

“Two of the gravest threats to survival are concessions to comfort and apathy. Both threats must be avoided. (AFR 64-4 US Air Force Survival Manual page 36)

Manage A Survival Situation, So You Don’t Lose Hope 

  • Set Small Achievable Tasks For Yourself. This will build confidence and reduce anxiety.
  • Don’t Dwell On Everything You Have To Do; focus on the here and now. If you need water, put your focus into getting water and then move on to the next task.
  • Use internal Resources instead of negative thoughts.
  • Learn Stress Management Techniques like relaxation skills, deep breathing, meditation, or prayer.
  • Use Time Management: planning necessary tasks reduces stress because it gives you a feeling of control.
  • Learn Survival Techniques: Learn basic fire starting, how to filter water naturally, and how to forage. The more survival skills you have, the more self-confident you will be. 
  • Plan Ahead: know the possible scenarios for your situation. 
  • Know your capabilities and limitations.
  • Keep a positive attitude.
  • Develop a realistic plan.
  • Anticipate.

Take Control Of A Survival Situation; The OODA Thought Loop

f-16 fighter jet

The OODA Loop was initially designed by U.S. Air Force Colonel John Boyd as a “decision cycle” for fighter pilots during dogfights or air to air combat.

This thought process will lead to action and will help you maintain a survivor mindset.

4 Steps of OODA; Observe, Orient, Decide, Act

1. Observe: 

Observe the survival situation, use your four senses to collect information about your immediate surroundings. Your observations might look something like this:

  • You see a stream with cold running water.
  • You notice that the area is flat and sheltered from the wind.
  • You see trash. 
  • You smell smoke from a fire.
  • You see pine trees.
  • You hear roadway noise in the distance.

2. Orient:

After observing, you analyze the data you collected. You could orient your data like this:

  • The stream provides drinking water and possibly food in the form of fish or muscles.
  • The area is flat and sheltered from the wind, so it is an excellent location to build a survival shelter.
  • You see trash and realize you may be close to civilization.
  • The trash pile may have useful items. 
  • You smell smoke from a fire; you are possibly close to civilization.
  • You see pine trees; pine bows make good shelters. 
  • You hear a roadway noise; you are close to a road.  
  • You see that the sun is going down so you will lose daylight soon

3. Decide:

You Decide To Take Action Based On Your Current Mental Perspective. The steps you choose to take might look like this:

  • You decide to build a shelter from pine bows
  • You decide to process water from the stream.
  • You decide to look through the trash and see if there is anything you can use. 
  • You decide to explore in the morning and see if you can find civilization or a roadway.  

4. Act:

The Physical Playing-out Of Decisions.  You take action.

  • You shelter in place. 
  • You build a lean-two out of pine bows. 
  • You look through the trash pile and find an old coffee can you can boil water with.
  • You find a sheet of plastic and an old baby mattress. 
  • You use the mattress and pine bows for your bedding.
  • You use the plastic sheet to weatherize your shelter.
  • You get water from the stream and boil it in the can. 
  • You check the stream and find some muscles. You cook them for food.
  • You fall asleep. 

You wake up the next day and continue to use the OODA Loop. Once you make up your mind, you take action. You continually evaluate your surroundings and change your survival plan when necessary.  

  • Take the information from step one, observation, and evaluate possible plans of action. 
  • Figure out what the upsides and downsides are for the actions you might take. 
  • Your mental model needs to be flexible to change with the environment.   

8 Steps To S.U.R.V.I.V.A.L.; U.S. Army Field Manual 

U.S. Army Soldier training

Manage your survival mindset by memorizing the U.S. Army acronym S.U.R.V.I.V.A.L. Each letter represents something you should remember to manage a survival situation and improve your survival mindset. 

8 Steps To S.U.R.V.I.V.A.L.

1. S-Size up the situation (Surroundings, Physical Condition, Equipment)

Size up your surroundings:

  • Determine the patterns of the area. 
  • What is going on around you?
  • Every environment: forest, jungle, desert, or ocean has a rhythm or pattern. 
  • Animals, bird noises, running water, wind, or the sound of civilization.

Size Up Your Physical Condition: First Aid is a priority.

  • Check to see if you have any injuries. 
  • Your body is in fight or flight mode so endorphins may mask a painful injury.
  • Drink water put on additional clothing. 
  • Check yourself and see what you need.

Size Up Your Equipment: 

  • Check to see what supplies you have, and it’s condition. What you have on hand is your equipment for survival. 
  • Now that you have sized up the situation, you can make a survival plan. 
  • Keep a close eye on your gear, so you don’t leave it behind or lose it.

2. U-Use all of your senses (Undue Haste Makes Waste)

  • In a survival situation, you need to STOP and think.
  • Study your situation before you make decisions.
  • Think about the consequences of your actions. 
  • Plan your moves, so you don’t get disoriented or lose gear.
  • Be observant. 
  • Think. Don’t waste energy.

3. R-Remember where you are 

  • You need to remember where you are in relation to your surroundings. 
  • Know where your camp is so you can get back to it. 
  • Where is the water in relation to your location?
  • What areas have you already searched? 
  • Be methodical, so you feel like you have control of the situation. 
  • If you have a map or a GPS device, use them to plot your movement.
  • If possible, use landmarks to familiarize yourself with the area.

4. V-Vanquish fear and panic

  • Vanquish fear and panic. They are the biggest enemies of survival.
  • They destroy your ability to make sound decisions.
  • They cause you to react to feelings or imagination rather than the situation and the facts. 
  • Fear and panic drain your energy and trigger other negative emotions

5. I-Improvise

  • Improvise with the tools you have by using them for purposes other than those intended
  •  Make tools from things you find or from something in nature 
  • An old coffee can could be a boiling pot. Plastic sheeting could be used as a rain jacket,to weatherize your shelter, or as a ground cover. 
  • Rock and some sticks could be used to build a shelter from an old tarp
  • A rock could be used as a hammer.
  • A sharpened stick could be used to gig frogs. 
  • Get creative

6. V-Value Living 

  • Have stubbornness, and a refusal to give up; value your life. 
  • We dislike inconvenience and discomfort. Modern living has made us soft. The desire for comfort increases stress. Don’t obsess about being uncomfortable. 
  • Make it your primary goal to survive.

7. A-Act Like Natives

  • The animals around you can give you clues on where water and food sources might be found
  • They require food and water so they may lead you to it

8. L-Live By Your Wits

  • Learn basic survival and bushcraft skills.
  • Know about the environment where you are headed. 
  • Survival and bushcraft training reduces fear of the unknown and gives you self-confidence. 
  • Bushcraft teaches you to live by your wits.

Useful Links:

United States Army Survival Manual FM 21-76 click here

The United States Air Force Handbook 10-644, Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) click here

United States Marine Corps MCRP3-O2H, Survival, Evasion, and Recovery click here

Video Summary Of This Article

Book you might like: Four Against the Wilderness by Elmo Wortman Amazing true story of a father and three teenagers that survive a shipwreck off the coast of Alaska

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