Camping & Survival

Throwback Thursday: Survival — It’s All in Your Head

Two men primitive camping in the woods in winter

When I am doing mundane things around the house or when stuck in the car for long periods, I imagine worst-case scenarios. For example, while stuck in traffic: “What if this traffic is backed up because an alien ship rose from underneath the highway and is now shooting deadly laser beams at everything in it’s wake? What would I do?” Or while doing dishes and I hear fireworks in the distance, I think, “If that was a dirty bomb just miles from my house, how would I react?” If the lights flicker for a second: “The storm of the century has knocked out all power and utilities. Quick, Suzanne! What is your first move?”

You might think this seems paranoid. Maybe even a little crazy. But little did I know these doomsday daydreams increase my chances of survival when disaster strikes.

Survival expert and former Navy SEAL Cade Courtley describes this as “emergency conditioning.” Leading trauma psychologist Dr. Rob Gordon agrees, “Mental preparation is crucial.”

I don’t just ask myself the “what will I do next” question, but I also envision the steps I will take. I see myself grabbing my bug-out bag and keys and mentally mapping my way out of town, or simply getting the dog and heading toward my safe room. Repeating responses to emergencies in your head tricks the brain into thinking you have lived through the experience, in turn, making it easier to react when actually faced with the danger for the first time. In his book, “SEAL SURVIVAL GUIDE: A Navy SEAL’s Secrets to Surviving Any Disaster,” Courtley writes:

“If the brain imagines something in deep and vivid detail, it will become part of a person’s ‘experience files.’ This visualization exercise will actually fool the brain into believing that you have already experienced this event. You can tap into these files at will by hitting the play button that starts the ‘movie’ of what you have already visualized and planned. It will seem more or less familiar if ever you are confronted with a similar experience. This internal battle-proofing gives you an incredible advantage.”

Two men primitive camping in the woods in winter
Visualizing what you will do during a disaster increases your chances of survival.

Doctors Gordon and Leach Explain Why

When hit with a potentially traumatic situation, such as a disaster, the frontal lobe of the right side of our brain—where we think in pictures and action—becomes more active due to an adrenaline dump. The left side of the brain—the logical brain—becomes less active.

Adrenaline is a stress hormone released by our adrenal glands that prepares the body for flight or fight when we feel threatened. This adrenaline surge doesn’t necessarily always come from a physical threat, but also an imagined one, vigorous exercise, or chronic stress or anxiety.

Adrenaline can cause a variety of physical responses such as:

  • Time distortion—time may feel like it speeds up or slows down
  • Tunnel vision
  • Distort your depth and auditory perceptions
  • Increase in blood flow, heart rate and breathing
  • Difficulty in thinking clearly and concentrating
  • Increase your pain threshold
  • Increase your strength and speed
  • Decrease fine motor skills and coordination

Consistent and excess adrenaline can have a negative impact on your memory. That is why is it so important to visualize your response to a disaster as often as you can. Courtley uses the example of envisioning what you would do if your car were to flood, “Imagine closing your eyes and getting your seatbelt on and off, or closing your eyes and rolling your window up and down. [It] creates muscle memory. If you do it enough times you can do it without even looking down. It just happens.”

Further, you need to be able to recognize your body’s specific reactions to adrenaline. For example, I get prickly skin, all the blood it rushes to my head, my heart speeds up, I get tunnel vision and am extremely focused on the threat.

When we have not practiced maintaining control over our reactions to this adrenaline dump, we have the potential to shut down completely. Survival psychologist and combat survival instructor, Dr. John Leach says that 75% of people will not be able to function during a disaster. That is why it is so important to keep this adrenaline dump in check.

Leah says, “Practice makes actions automatic, without [the need for] detailed thinking. Every time I go on a boat, the first thing I do is find out where my lifeboat station is, because then if there is a problem I just have to respond, I don’t have to starting thinking about it. Typically, survivors survive not because they are braver or more heroic than anyone else, but because they are better prepared.”

To keep this adrenaline in check, Dr. Gordon says we must “Work out the problem beforehand. Make the threat more familiar. Make the procedures more routine.” This emergency conditioning allows us to enhance our problem solving skills when we need to react quickly to a potentially deadly situation.

Besides visualization, you can rehearse survival scenarios, practice situational awareness, and focus on deep breathing. Combat or tactical breathing, which is taught to military, law enforcement and first responder personnel is a relaxing technique proven to calm stress. Breathe in through your nose for four seconds. Then stop and hold your breath for four seconds. Exhale through your mouth for four seconds. Positive self-talk said aloud like, “You’ve got this,” “I’m okay,” or “It’s going to be okay,” helps, too.

Of course, having the right equipment, organizational skills and a detailed plan is just as important. Having these three things in line will make you feel prepared. Knowing your basic necessities are going to be met, because you planned and prepped for it, will help you act clearly and appropriately when faced with a threat. Confidence before facing the survival situation is key.

Lakeside retreat
With emergency conditioning, you can find peace during the chaos.

If You Need a Boost

It’s as easy as starting out talking to a friend or your family about the most likely of natural disasters in your area. If it is a flood or ice storm, more than likely, you have already lived through it and know what is necessary to keep on hand. Right after a disaster happens is the perfect chance to discuss with others what they would do in the situation. For example, last winter severe ice storms had motorists stuck overnight in their vehicles in Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama and Texas. Watching the coverage from your warm and cozy couch, gives you the perfect opportunity to bring up, “What would you do in that situation? How can we be ready if we are ever faced with that?”

As cheesy as it may sound, true and reality-style survival TV shows can help, as well. I’m partial to the shows on The Weather Channel, but will also watch other credible survival shows when they are on like Survivorman, Naked and Afraid and Alone. “Backseat driving” when watching these shows exercises your prepping mindset. Would you do things differently? Did they do something you hadn’t thought of? There are many times I have learned something new from watching these types of shows.

Don’t let things get overwhelming. Leach says, “All you have to do is ask yourself one simple question. If something happens what is my first response? Once you can answer that, everything else will fall into place. It’s that simple.”

If you haven’t started preparing yet, you need to:

  1. Make an emergency kit. Your emergency kit needs to include drinking water, non-perishable foods or high-energy protein bars, a first aid kit, essential medications, flashlight, batteries, cell phone charger and sanitation items.
  2. Psychically practice scenarios. Test your survival supplies and thoroughly know how to use the equipment in your survival kit and bug-out bag.
  3. Stay organized. Keep your go-bag or emergency kit in one place. Store an extra survival kit in the car. Don’t let your household run out of spare batteries, alternative fuel or bottled water.
  4. Create a clear-cut plan and instructions on what steps the family will take when an emergency occurs.

How do you mentally prepare for a disaster? Share what helps you to remain calm and in control during an emergency in the comment section.

For more on the survivalist mindset, read Resilience and Building the Survivor Mindset.

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Comments (33)

  1. Excellent reminder in this article for preparation. I think Mikial also points out situational awareness for the present is of the upmost importance. Making that quick mental plan as you enter the restaurant for example, is the perfect way to keep your mind engaged in survival.
    I travel over the road for work a lot. Often this is how I pass the time. Thinking of various scenarios, how I would proceed, how I would accomplish my objectives. For where I live, the interstate being closed is fairly common in the winter. As you can imagine, depending on the duration, this can cause some issues.
    We also have regular wild fires in my area (not just the last few years) As mentioned in the article, I use these occurances to bring round the wife. She grew up in southern California and then in New Jersey, so… well anyway, she’s coming around.
    Great article. Good conversation starter.

  2. I think the article makes some good points. Survival Thinking is similar to some military or law enforcement training. Planning for scenerios that never happen is good. Those plans get used in one way or another for the mental planning of the next scenerio. So when needed, we are much more ready to accept and deal with a situation that those who stand with fixated looks on their faces from shock their mouths open uttering “Oh My God! What should I do?”

  3. Very good, very relevant and well written article. This same visualization is extremely useful to instill and strengthen reaction time and execution speed in self defense scenarios and in the practice of martial arts.

    It’s good to know that acting out any action or response allows one to practice and improve just by imagining, thinking and pretending that something is happening. It’s like being able to run a drill even if seated in our car, walking thru the neighborhood or as I also do myself, imagining myself in a particular situation while observing life or watching a movie and then re-imagining how I’d handle the situation differently.

    I wish I could get others to join me in performing emergency action drills to practice moving and working with others or an assembled group.

    1. I’m with you there!! Hopefully they will be the slow The Walking Dead type and not the World War Z fast moving type.

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