The Psychology of Survival – Part 3

How to deal with secondary stress factors and threats in survival situations

How do I increase my chances of safely avoiding or getting out of a dangerous situation? By being thoroughly prepared. Equipment and survival hacks are decisive factors, but so is understanding your psyche. In our series on the psychology of survival, Bushcraft instructor Ralf Pintzka guides us in skills to control our thoughts and emotions during emergencies – an ability that can save lives.

full survival gear and outfit the outdoors

The last part of our series dealt with the primary psychological behaviors people exhibit in crises and their impact on human survivability. After a detailed examination, most outdoor enthusiasts will clearly understand these reactions and be able to easily recognize them in the future. However, there are other factors at play that can pose a threat by rapidly escalating an emergency. We rarely anticipate these factors (and if we do, it’s often much too late). I would now like to clarify these factors in detail.

1. Fatigue & physical exhaustion

When a student is mentally burned out after two hours of studying, she can throw herself on the couch and watch Netflix to relax. If a construction worker had a strenuous day on the job, he can take a bath and go to bed early to wake up the following day feeling refreshed. And when I need a break from writing this article in my home office, I close the laptop and take a power nap in my deck chair on the balcony. It is pretty easy to fit in a break when you get tired in everyday life.

woman resting on tree the outdoors

By contrast, things can be a bit more complicated in the wilderness. If I am far from civilization, I can’t enjoy the comfort of a bedroom with a double bed. It’s not like being in my living room, where I can put on my favorite record and relax in my leather armchair. And if I find myself in a survival situation, I might not even have a thermal pad to sleep on and the whole matter surrounding getting a good night’s rest becomes a problem.

The idea of assembling a raised bed “on the fly” may sound good, but it is pure fantasy. Sawing, transporting, and arranging material takes time, effort, and energy. In all likelihood, a survival situation would already result in my being in a weakened state and too unfocused to work properly. Despite all the effort, a careless set-up improvised sleeping place would not only prove uncomfortable but would not contribute to my getting enough restful sleep.

Even moderate exhaustion can have serious consequences in terms of survival. A level of fatigue that is still physically tolerable can lead to mood swings early. Motivation and confidence suffer equally from lack of rest. Without motivation, I can’t accomplish much in a survival situation. A lack of confidence, by contrast, often leads quickly and unfortunately to precisely the kinds of psychological reactions discussed in the previous article.

What does this mean for us? In a survival situation, it is vitally important to take advantage of every rest opportunity, no matter how small! For instance, if I find myself suffering under the unrelenting scorching sun and find a free-standing tree offering shade, I use the opportunity to rest and cool off. Have I just completed an arduous descent and come across a small stand of spruce trees in the valley? Then it is only logical that I should put down my backpack and lean against a tree to relax.

Once your battery is empty, it is very difficult to recharge it in an emergency. Therefore, make sure to use every chance at your disposal to rest accordingly. When it is really a matter of survival, you have to act with deliberation. Survival is not a race, and you won’t win a prize by being the fastest.

cutting wood with knife the outdoors

2. Boredom and loneliness

Most people think of survival in terms of action and adventure. Steady exposure to TV shows, YouTube, and other media leaves most with the impression that survival is a succession of extreme events: protagonists rappel down cliffs, conquer rapids on improvised rafts, etc. Reality is another matter altogether. Anyone who has spent some length of time in a survival situation knows that, sooner or later, all necessary measures will have been taken (i.e., building a shelter, a fire pit, etc.). Eventually, the point is reached when you no longer know what is left to do. The minutes feel like hours, hours like days, and days like weeks.

Boredom is a silent killer

Without any concrete tasks, the mind is no longer occupied, and intense brooding can take hold. This brooding can be grueling, eventually leading to feelings of remorse and powerlessness, which ultimately erodes any hope for a positive outcome. Once indifference or apathy sets in, it is only a small step to giving up.

survival and orientation bushcraft

The feeling of loneliness is not much different. You might have to get through days or weeks without any social contact, and the resulting loneliness can drive you crazy. Ironically, Tom Hanks’ performance in the film Cast Away is quite accurate on this point. For half an eternity, the stranded man counts the passing days, begins to talk to himself, and, in desperation, even paints a face on a volleyball so that “someone” will finally keep him company. In general, loneliness and boredom go hand in hand. The realization that one is entirely on one’s own leads to feelings of powerlessness and being overwhelmed. As you can see, we have come full circle.

So what actions can I take in a survival situation that may last for an unforeseeable timeframe?

First of all, I recommend clearly defining your plans and the steps necessary to realize them. By creating an overview for yourself, you can then schedule the corresponding actions and goals. Finding a task for the coming evening or the following day gives a reason to continue living through that evening or the next day.

Likewise, it can be helpful to ask yourself whether to review tasks that you have already completed. For example, if I set up my shelter on the first day, I can then check on the following day if I can improve it. Perhaps I can waterproof the roof or optimize the insulation on the ground. As a bonus, such reappraisals can result in increased comfort along with a sense of accomplishment, which, in turn, is a source of motivation. Of course, we must consider the cost-benefit factor at all times.

I also recommend getting involved in bushcraft – that is, working with materials found in nature. Whether weaving a cord from nettle fibers or carving an emergency whistle from hazelwood, such handicraft projects help us keep busy. Still, they can also increase our scope for action and chances of survival. If you want to learn more about bushcraft, you can find information on my website Rathwulven Bushcraft.

treating a wound bushcraft the outdoors

3. Minor injuries and ailments

Obviously, any serious illness, such as food poisoning, can reduce our chances of survival. However, I would like to talk specifically about minor aches and pains, usually considered harmless in everyday life. Far removed from the comforts of civilization, these aches and pains can pose considerably more problems than one might at first assume.

Let’s say I’m building a shelter and handling rough wood for the whole day. In the process, I tear the skin between the tip and the nail of my thumb. Unlike at home, I cannot treat this minor injury with iodine. And to make matters worse, I will have to do a lot more work with my hands in the coming days. If my hands are dirty and my fingernail gets infected. As a result, I may lose the functionality of my thumb and will no longer be able to use one of my hands properly. Even a tiny scratch can lead to temporary incapacitation.

Headaches, for example, can be caused by any number of factors, such as dehydration, sun exposure, overexertion, etc. Anyone who suffers from migraines or has ever had a proper hangover knows from experience how little you can accomplish with a pounding skull. Therefore, it is advisable to take preventive action as quickly as possible, such as resting in the shade or moving at a slower pace. If the headache persists, you can chew the cambium, the inner layer of bark, from the willow tree. The bark contains acetylsalicylic acid, which later became known in its synthesized form as the active ingredient of aspirin.

orientation and survival the outdoors

The list of minor, often seemingly insignificant aches and pains is endless. (Think wood splinters, bee stings, foot blisters, an upset stomach, etc.). There are hundreds of other examples. And there is no universal solution. However, it is recommended that you perform every activity with undivided attention and with “mindfulness”:

When picking berries from a prickly bush, speed is unimportant. The main thing is not getting your arm overly scratched, risking unnecessary infections. When working with different materials (wood, flint, etc.), your movements must remain careful and controlled. The same is true when handling tools (knives, hatchets, etc.). If you get dizzy or feel pressure on your temples, it is alright to take a break if necessary. Furthermore, every step towards improving one’s personal hygiene is welcome. If you wash your hands regularly (i.e., in streams) and reduce your exposure to germs, you also reduce the risk of internal and external infections.

Above all, you must constantly heed any warning signals from your body, no matter how slight they may be.

Until this point, we discussed all of the human psyche’s common stress-related and problematic factors in extreme situations. In the next section, we will deal with the principle of calculated risk and explain the STOP technique.

Stay tuned for Part 4 of our series about The Psychology of Survival!