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.

  4. I suspect a more realistic number would be around 5%, and that’s being generous! If you live on a Farm or a Ranch, who basic living is Raising Farm Animals and Food Grains…

  5. My Dad always told us to keep our vehicle’s fuel tank at least half full. That way in an emergency when you may not be thinking clearly, you will have enough to escape the situation and can get to a safe area to refuel.

  6. Every time I hear or see a chopper my mind goes into “what ifs?”. Ditto when I hear or see any kind of air force planes- and more than one puts my imagination into overdrive. A convoy of military vehicles on the roads would send me to the armory post haste.

  7. I’m always ready to buy items for being prepared, like batteries, more flashlights ECT…the thing is that in my family ???? of three, No one takes me serious, they think that somehow, someone like our government agencies are completely ready for such events.
    So I try to explain it to them, That we’re on our own literally.
    Keep praying for America to wake up.
    God bless America ????????????????✔ .

    1. I guess I’m blessed to have a wife who believes in stocking up. Food, medical supplies, water, light, heat and cooking sources, guns and ammo, learning to fight in a variety of ways with a variety of weapons.

      One problem is that too many people think that preppers are only thinking of TEOTWAWKI scenarios. We have horrendous thunder and wind storms here some years, and power can be off for days at a time. Try getting them to see the need to be prepared for the smaller emergencies that the government will do nothing to help mitigate.

  8. Great article, Suzanne.

    Always think ahead. Always prepare for the worst and know you can take the right action. This empowers you, and when you feel confident and empowered, you will think clearly and react better in a real world situation.

    I have been shot at with everything from small arms to RPGs and mortars, been IED’d, surrounded by a mob of angry Iraqis because I was standing up for a family of locals in Baghdad as a security contractor, been trapped on a mountain when a blizzard front rolled in, and wandered everywhere from Pakistan to the West Bank. I credit that fact that I am still alive to always expecting the worst.

    These days, although I still make trips to places like South Sudan, I mainly put all this to play when my wife and I go to a restaurant or anywhere else. Where should we sit to have a good view of the entrance and a clear run to the emergency exit? Should we cross the road to avoid the group of people coming towards us? Which area should we avoid when out for a ride at night?

    Think. Play out the scenarios in your head. Prepare. Be ready to react.

    In short, expect the worst. And if it doesn’t happen . . . then enjoy the moment.

  9. Its very important that you know how to make your own booze. Its a great disinfectent, cleaner, fire starter and pain reliever.

    1. Drinking at a time like that isn’t good for you. You need all your senses at there prime at all times you’re awake.

    2. vud eber wood we mean?! I hav lots of scopes wif guns on dem a see can for lots and lots and lost of miles. I will aways my shuroundings.

    3. @Vector16

      You know that I like a lot of what you post, Bro. But, had you been drinking when you made this comment? Lot’s of typos, Bro! 😉

    4. Great writing Suzanne, as we age all the items you mentioned become even more important. Writing inventory lists of go bags, location lists of all items, (keeping this list in secure location). Its different for all of us, the more I write the more I remember and this helps my poor “old” brain. Well done!!! .

    5. Lighten up, Maccabee. A good sense of humor can be vital to our mental health. No one is suggesting getting drunk in times of crisis.

    6. I have a great sense if humor, it’s just that I don’t joke about certain things. Btw do you think a bank robber would rob a bank if he saw a sign in front that says “all employees are required to be armed”? That was completly off topic but I had to say that.

    7. On a serious note tho. I’ve never had a drop of alcohol in my life. So my mind is pretty much clear all the time.

    8. Lol. There are 2 5th’s of Crown Royal in my survival supply room….I figure if it is totally hopeless…bottoms up!

  10. A very good reminder for the prepper that the mind is a very important tool for survival. Regular practice and incident review are very important also. A personal example is due to a residence move and the building of a very large out building I had not gone to the range in over a year. I recently went to a CCW class that required live fire. I found that my muscle memory on manipulating the weapon had only degraded somewhat due to the occasional practice during the past year but my shot pattern was way off(still good enough to pass).
    Another way I visualize and pre think responses to situations is to read non fiction accounts and fictional stories about people’s response to disaster situations. I will pass on the two things that I constantly say to my self and others Semper Paratis (always prepare/ prepared) and Improvise Adapt Overcome.

  11. Good article, Suzanne. One’s mind is really the most important survival tool. Preemptive thinking about how you would react to many different crises/disasters can give you the edge you need to survive.

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