Survival Strategies Part 1: Coping Mechanisms
Connect with your environment
One of the best definitions of survival intelligence in my view is the ability to adapt to one's environment. If possible, to adapt the environment to aid survival.
You may be in a survival situation in your own locale, but because of some natural disaster (e.g. fire, flood, contamination, war, etc.) the environment may have changed. Recognizing that once familiar things have changed is a shock in itself. In such a situation, relationships with others are of paramount importance to psychological survival. Do not go it alone and isolate yourself, instead, keep in regular contact with other people. Connecting with people provides social support and strengthens mental resilience.
It is not only aid agencies, also the military today are increasing involved in helping civilians in disaster areas and in war zones. Losing a home can be a very traumatic experience. After all, this is where people feel safe, they have put a lot of effort and personality into it and their home may have been their single greatest financial investment. One of the best coping mechanisms is to try to give these people hope. Help them to begin to plan a new life.
There are various stages to recovering from such a situation. The first priority may be to clear up after the disaster and establish some sort of shelter, sanitation and utilities. When it comes to rebuilding, do not just try to replace what they once had; encourage them to make the redevelopment process dynamic. Encourage them to plan a new life as well as a new home; seek to improve on what they had previously if at all possible. This applies if they lived in a reed hut or a five–storey, stone–built mansion. This can be achieved both materially and by trying to improve their quality of life; divert their energies into helping others and helping the community to re–establish itself. This gives hope to everyone as well.
All such experiences in the past have shown that communities who take this approach are less prone to people later on suffering from the effect of destructive, negative emotions, such as, depression or prolonged trauma, like PTSD. The population affected by the disaster emerged much healthier psychologically if they adopted this approach. Studies have also shown that communities affected by a natural disaster suffered a higher percentage of long–term psychological problems if they did not react immediately, but rather waited for aid to arrive from the outside.
People in such a scenario are stricken with grief for their lost ones and their demolished way of life. Grieving is a healthy emotion as long as it does not turn into self–pity, despair and inactivity. People in grief need comforting. They also need to busy themselves doing something useful. Wallowing in grief is destructive because this inevitably turns to self–pity. Remember, it is necessary to adapt to your new environment and to harmonize with it. This may also involve adapting the environment to better suit the needs of the future community.
Adapting to one's environment
If you are, for example, lost in a remote and harsh environment such as a tropical forest or wilderness, adapting to the environment in which you are living is essential. Try to see the unfamiliar not as threatening, rather see it for what it is, just different; a set of new and unfamiliar surroundings in which you can survive if you adopt the right mental attitude.
For twenty–six days, I shared the experience of being lost in tropical jungle with three other soldiers (the circumstances leading up to this are another story). The three soldiers with me were not British and mentioning their country serves no positive purpose. We knew that once we located a river we could follow it and eventually find a native settlement.
We had all undergone jungle warfare and survival training but I was the only one who really enjoyed being in this environment, the others seeing it as a threatening and an uncomfortable place. In truth, we were in good shape and had some basic equipment; we could make shelter, cook and take care of any minor medical emergencies that might arise.
A forest is a rich source of food if you know what to look for and it was wet, so water was no problem. My main concern was to find a river that would eventually lead us to people. The worse suffering came from horrendous insect attacks, badly blistered hands from using a machete and from sore feet. My comrades were suffering mentally because of their inability to adapt to their new environment — they could only see the bad side of things.
After several days, they were very low in spirits and convinced we would never get out alive. I tried hard to interest them in the forest, explaining the fantastic ecosystem, trying to get them to see the beauty of it. My aim was to convince them that we would succeed and make it back to safety, but my efforts were failing because they had already adopted a negative mindset and were encouraging each other to spiral down in a most destructive way. They were so negative to be with that I seriously considered going it alone after a few days. I knew that one of the basic survival rules in such a situation was to stick together, even so, if circumstances had deteriorated much further I would have been forced to leave them. However, I was convinced we were making progress in the hunt for the river and I resolved to tough it out.
I occupied myself by ensuring that we were supplied with boiled drinking water and that everyone was keeping up his liquid levels. I was constantly on the lookout for sources of food while we were on the move; personally, I felt in relatively good spirits and had hope. I knew we could survive indefinitely in the forest even without our equipment; I also knew that wouldn't be necessary. Our relationship issues were another matter. Things were so bad between us that even my efforts to help my colleagues were seen as an intrusion. They accused me of thinking I was better than them and I was 'a jumped–up Brit'. By contrast, the others were losing interest in the basics of jungle survival such as keeping clean, maintaining their equipment, eating whenever possible and sleeping when we made camp. Although this was not a training exercise and we were in potentially hostile territory, they even refused to take turns guarding the camp at night.
After eighteen days, all discipline and even basic survival principles simply went out of the window and my colleagues became even more fixated on their personal discomfort. I soon became the target of their ridicule, anger and sarcasm. The psychological effect of this was harder to bear than the daily hardship of what we were going through. I coped by occupying my mind with other things and practiced 'reading' the jungle as we had been taught. It got dark early and we had to rest until daybreak. To pass the long hours of darkness and to take my mind off the very real threat of animal attacks, I amused myself by making two reed flutes, one for each of my children. Just making these simple gifts really spurred me on. It was a little thing in reality, but the desire to survive and give the flutes to my children fired my determination to get out of our predicament.
On our twentieth day, we found the river we were looking for and spent six days walking down its course until we found 'civilization' and our survival experience was effectively over.
My reason for telling this anecdote is this: If I had been in poor physical and psychological shape, with no survival knowledge or training, it is quite possible the jungle would have destroyed me. By adapting to the environment I could have lived in the jungle forever if need be, just like the native people who inhabit it. By not being in control of their own psychology my colleagues would have perished. They fought against the environment and could not rise above their own personal distortions. Worse, they brought each other down and fuelled their own mental anguish.
You can see from this how important mental attitude is and how important it is to change one's thinking when faced with the unfamiliar. To try to adapt to a new set of circumstances and challenges. This ability is the hallmark of psychological survival, both in the jungle and in one's everyday life.
Helping others is a great way of taking your mind off your own problems. It is actually possible to find fulfilment in this even in the worst–case scenarios, such as, losing loved ones or your possessions. The psychological processes underlying this are quite simple and straightforward, known in psychology as logotherapy. At the risk of oversimplifying Frankl's theory, logotherapy is based on helping people survive hardship by discovering the meaning in their life.
Logotherapy may partially explain why we instinctively look for some way to help others when a disaster strikes, even if we ourselves are victims too. We seem to need to do something proactive in response to the suffering all around us. This is a type of 'empathy distress', which is caused when events we witness or hear about stimulate an instinct in us to help others in trouble.
For many people, this meaning has to do with how they can contribute to the world and to those they love. In a disaster scenario, this is contributing to the community and one's fellow sufferers. Assisting others in a time of need can be empowering and it makes you feel good. I have spoken to soldiers who, alone in a survival situation, have helped nature.
One story in particular came from a soldier who had been alone for days and was feeling quite despondent. He noticed a fallen branch was crushing a sapling and removed the branch to allow the sapling to grow. It was a small thing but he said his act of 'kindness' to the sapling cheered him up and brightened his whole day. People report a mental high when they first start to help and this settles down to a feeling of calm, which is associated with very rational thinking. It is followed later by feelings of emotional stability, greater self–worth, happiness and optimism. This is a truly powerful survival strategy.
It is true that time spent comforting and practically helping others is also a form of self–healing. The process is not just restricted to helping fellow human beings. People can have the same feeling when helping animals in a disaster scenario.
Plan what you are going to do
Whatever survival situation you are facing, freak of nature or man–made, making a plan is both practical and psychologically a healthy way of boosting your ability to cope. A good starting point is to make an evaluation of your current situation. Here is a suggestion of how you might start such a list. Is the disaster that occurred likely to repeat itself? If so, what can I do to prepare;
At first glance, finding ways of amusing oneself may seem an odd coping strategy. However, in many survival situations, the one thing you are likely to have a lot of is time, and one of the things you most likely no longer have is any form of entertainment. If you reflect on your current lifestyle, it is probable that you spent some hours each day being entertained. This may be the TV, listening to music, some social gathering, reading a book or whatever. In many survival situations, your familiar forms of entertainment are unlikely to exist.
Those of us who have lived through a survival situation know that routine tasks can be very time–consuming and occupy much of the survivor's time — but they are still just routine tasks and this can grind on the psyche. If you are to stay psychologically well balanced, you have to counter the daily struggle with some form of relaxation. It is also true that in a survival situation, once the day's work is done, negative feelings can seem worse. An Army friend of mine once put it this way, 'At night, every bite seems to itch more, every pain seems to hurt more and every gloomy thought seems blacker.'
Another thing to do is find an activity that interests you. If you are with others and the resources can support it, playing a sport is a great way of boosting personal morale. In a survival situation, a fun team activity is a good way of chasing away the negative emotions and feelings that can spiral down and erode hope. The exercise also releases those valuable endorphins.
Alone, or with others, invent a simple game or make one you know. An example of such a game could be draughts or checkers. Choose games that can be made quickly with simple materials. If games are not you, consider making a primitive musical instrument or if you are in such a survival situation, a primitive weapon and teach yourself to become proficient with it.
The psychological concept is that you should aim to take your mind off your situation for at least one hour a day to give your brain time to relax. This reduces the strains and stresses of your situation.
Caring for yourself
Caring for yourself is important, so make sure you clean and tidy yourself up. An animal that no longer cares for itself in this way is giving up on life and the same applies to humans. It is important for your physical as well as your mental health.
Caring also includes the way you think. Nurture a positive view of yourself. Think of the ways you have successfully handled hardships in the past, such as the loss of a loved one, a divorce or a major illness. You have these skills based on your past experience so use them to meet current challenges. Everyone has solved problems in their lives. Trust your ability to solve your current problems and to make appropriate decisions. Keep things in perspective.
Even when facing very painful events, try to consider the stressful situation in wider terms and keep a long–term perspective. All bad times come to an end. Tell yourself that and remember that circumstances can ultimately improve.
All these skills, which you already own, will help you to maintain a hopeful outlook. An optimistic and positive outlook enables you to see the good things in your life and can keep you going even in the hardest times. There are positive things in everyone's life, such as good health, a comfortable home and strong friendships. In a survival situation, there will also be positive things if you look for them (maybe you really could do with losing a few pounds!). Taking the time to identify and appreciate anything you can find as a positive will enhance your outlook and help you to cope with the bad time you are going through.
How to deal with being alone and loneliness
Loneliness is an empty or hollow feeling inside you. In a survival situation you could be isolated or separated from the world, cut off from those you would like to have contact with. There are different kinds of loneliness and different degrees of loneliness. You might experience loneliness as a vague feeling that something is not right, a kind of minor emptiness. Or you might feel loneliness as a very intense deprivation and deep pain. One type of loneliness might be related to missing family and friends, simply just not having another human being to talk to. Another type might involve feeling alone and out of contact with other survivors because you are having difficulty reaching out to them (and them to you).
Loneliness is different than just being alone
It needs to be emphasized here that loneliness is not the same as being alone. Loneliness is the feeling of being alone and feeling sad about it. And, of course, all of us feel lonely some of the time. It is only when we seem trapped in our loneliness that it becomes a real problem. In a survival situation all the emotions are closer to the surface and feeling sad about being alone and feeling lonely is part of the equation.
How do we contribute to our own sense of loneliness?
Loneliness is a passive state. That is, it is maintained by our passively letting it continue and doing nothing to change it. We hope it will go away, eventually, and we do nothing but let it envelop us. Strangely, there are times when we might even embrace the feeling. Yet, embracing loneliness and sinking down into the feelings associated with it usually leads to a sense of depression and helplessness, which, in turn, leads to an even more passive state and more depression. In a survival situation this can rapidly deteriorate into feelings of anxiousness and despair leading to having suicidal thoughts. The degree to which we contribute to our own sense of loneliness depends very much on our personality and psychological strength. Some people deal with solitude and loneliness very well, even welcome it, others crumble rapidly, unable to cope without the support of family and friends. Some people just cannot stand being all alone.
Finding ways to change these feelings of loneliness
It is important to recognize the lonely feelings and express them. If you are literally all alone in a survival situation, talk to an imaginary friend about your feelings. It may sound a bit weird to do this, but it is a proven psychological technique that works. If you are with others talk to them about it. Often we do not express our feelings to others for fear of appearing weak in front of them, however, once one person opens up others will follow. In a group of survivors, it is essential that deeper feelings are talked about and respected by all. This grows closer bonds and understanding and helps to eliminate feelings of loneliness and being alone. It may sound trite, but to stop feeling lonely, we first must accept that we are feeling lonely. Sometimes admitting it to ourselves is difficult. We then have to express those feelings of loneliness in some way. Write them down. Write a letter to a friend or relative even though you cannot send it to them. Try making up a song about how you feel, or doing anything else that lets you begin to express your feelings. Expressing our feelings might lead us to discover that we feel a number of things which might be connected to our feelings of loneliness, including sadness, anger, and frustration. We might be able to begin to see where these feelings are coming from. As we begin to see these connections we will be more able to begin to make changes.
Loneliness in a survival situation can hit you without warning. It hits home when you realize you are the only person around and everything you do, every decision you make, is solely down to you. Man is basically a social creature and modern society rarely gives us a chance to test our ability to adapt to silence, loss of support, and separation from others. We all depend on others for everyday survival without even thinking about it. We depend on others for company, entertainment, food, water, fuel, medical care and psychological support, in fact, most things. To be deprived of a nurturing infrastructure that we have been used to since childhood is one of the most frightening experiences a survivor can face. Even if you are not on your own, but with others, you are all experiencing the same deprivations. If on your own, fight it by keeping busy by singing, whistling, daydreaming, gathering food, or doing anything else that will take your mind off the fact that you are alone. Keep busy to keep your mind occupied. If you are with others, talking about your deeper feelings is the best cure for loneliness and feeling all alone. Developing team activities helps, make them practical if possible, like collecting fuel. Group practical activities with a purpose in a survival situation give rise to collective feelings of belonging and a sense of real achievement. All of these techniques help to dispel feelings of loneliness and being alone.