Most of the guides in this series have looked at how to look after your physical wellbeing in a survival situation, but mental health is just as important—and often overlooked—in a survival emergency.
An old wilderness proverb states that ‘survival is 90% mental, 10% physical’. You can have all the survival training necessary, but if you feel defeated by the situation you’re in, you’re unlikely to survive. Reducing psychological stress will help you think more clearly, assess your surroundings, and make better decisions.
The first thing to do in a survival situation is treat any injuries—even minor ones. While it might be tempting to wait until your shelter is sorted and you’ve built a fire to treat cuts and grazes, small injuries are still painful, and create psychological stress. Unless it’s dangerous for you to stay where you are, treat every wound before you move on.
Next, remember the acronym STOP: Sit, Think, Observe, and Plan. Most events that put you in a survival situation will be accompanied by an adrenaline rush, which will make you want to move as much as possible. Resist this urge, and try to take at least an hour to sit and rest once you’ve treated any injuries. This time will give you the chance to think carefully about the situation you’re in—what you know of the area where you’re stranded, who knows where you are or where you’re planning to be, and what your resources are. This leads to the ‘observe’ step of the acronym. Look around you for any rivers, woodland, or sheltered areas where you can gather materials you might not have to hand.
Finally, once you’ve collected all this information, you need to make a plan. If you’ve crashed somewhere and there are resources nearby, it makes more sense to stay as near as is safe to the crash site, to make it easier for any search and rescue teams to find you. If you’re lost in the wilderness (say you’ve become separated from a hiking group) and know that nobody will be able to pinpoint your exact location, it may be worth using what you know of the area you’re in—as well as any navigation methods you know—to try and reach civilisation yourself. Take your time coming up with a plan that best suits your situation, and weigh up the pros and cons of each decision carefully.
Fight or Flight
Similar to the adrenaline rush described above, you will probably find yourself in a heightened emotional state if faced with a survival emergency. This may be conscious or subconscious, but either way you ought to pay attention to how your body feels. If your heart is pounding, your palms are sweaty, your arms and legs go numb, or any other feelings you associate with being afraid, you need to stop and consider them, even if you don’t have a conscious sense of danger. Acknowledging these emotions makes it less likely that you’ll enter a full-blown state of panic as it gives you time to think through what is causing them, and what you can do to mitigate the chances of your fears coming true. Admitting you’re afraid is much less psychologically taxing than constantly pretending you’re not.
If you’re stuck in the wild for a long time with no ready-made food supply, you’re going to get hungry. This can have a severe effect on your morale, and isn’t something to be taken lightly. However, rather than listing innumerable edible—and poisonous—plants for you to look for, this guide suggests foregoing food unless you know for certain that it won’t do you any harm. The human body can withstand up to 30 days without food if necessary, so while your hunger pangs might be intense, unless you’re a keen forager already, you’re better off not risking trying to remember whether it was the three-leaved bush that had poisonous berries, or the four-leaved one.
Having food supplies ready-packed doesn’t necessarily give you license to tuck into a full meal, either. Your body uses up water for digestion, and if you can’t replenish your water stores it’s more important to hold on to as much bodily fluid as possible than to satisfy that gnawing feeling in the pit of your stomach. This is particularly true if your food supply is protein-heavy, as proteins take more water to digest than other nutrients.
Bear in mind that not eating will place you under stress, so again you need to ensure you’re monitoring your emotions (and those of your group, if you’re not alone) and giving yourself enough time to rest—while you can survive without food for prolonged periods of time, it will leave you very weak and irritable.
By Ellie Hughes - Online Journalism Intern
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