It doesn’t take a major catastrophe or terrorist attack to put you in a survival situation. It could be as simple an incident as stepping off a hiking trail, losing you way on a hunting trip or taking a wrong turn in your car. Before you know it, you’re lost or stuck and on your own.
If that happens, there is one danger that presents more of an immediate threat to your well-being than thirst, cold or hunger. That danger is fear.
Many studies have been conducted that document the body’s response to fear. And while the response can be helpful in some situations, it can be equally as harmful in others.
Writing in his book, 98.6 Degrees: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive!, Cody Lundin says that when the brain perceives a threat to survival, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) kicks into overdrive and releases stress hormones — called adrenaline or epinephrine — that affect the body in several ways.
The SNS response is automatic and uncontrollable. Your heart rate increases (from 70 beats per minute to as many as 200 in less than a second), cardiac output increases, blood pressure rises and your blood sugar increases. Blood is diverted from organs to the larger muscle groups (to reinforce in case flight or fight is necessary) and strength is increased. Your breathing rate accelerates to transport more oxygen to the muscles, sweating increases to cool the working muscles and minor blood vessels in the arms and legs constrict to reduce bleeding should an injury occur.
Pupils dilate, reducing depth perception, and the function of axillary muscles decreases, which creates blurred vision. The field of sight narrows and produces tunnel vision. These things combine to create the sensation that time is standing still, which allows for increased reaction time to the emergency.
Unfortunately, all of this also leads to an inability to think clearly and a reduction in fine motor skill and makes simple tasks extremely difficult. It is because of this that you can’t allow fear to take over in times of crisis.
Lundin writes that physiological responses to stress can be broken down into four crucial factors for the survivor:
- Fear inhibits your metabolic process. You body produces heat by digesting the calories in the foods you eat. If this is impaired, your body has a harder time of regulating core temperature in cold weather. Thus, the onset of hypothermia can manifest much more rapidly. By metabolizing food, your body creates energy that can be used to create shelter, signal for rescue or make a fire.
- Fear impairs your circulation. Basic first-aid training stresses the importance of the ABCs (airway, breathing and circulation). Your circulatory system is how your body feeds itself, delivers oxygen to cells, eliminates waste products and keeps itself warm and cool. In cold weather, blood flow is the primary means by which your body maintains its peripheral temperature, which is automatically restricted by the SNS’s response to stress! Compromising circulation puts your odds for living into a serious tailspin in both hot and cold climates. In addition, the chances are good that your circulatory system will already be impaired due to dehydration.
- Fear impairs your good judgment. Good judgment is your number-one tool for preventing or dealing with a survival predicament in the first place. Poor judgment calls, without a doubt, are the hallmark of every single outdoor fatality. Occurrences such as auditory exclusion, tunnel vision, irrational behavior, freezing in place, and the inability to think clearly have been observed as by-products of survival stress. Do what you can to chill out and calm yourself, redirecting your energies away from the fear factors.
- Fear impairs your fine and complex motor skills. Although these phenomena have been observed and documented for hundreds of years, and formally studied since the 1800s, there is very little understanding by researchers as to why stress deteriorates performance.
So, if the response is automatic and involuntary, what can you do to overcome it? Lundin’s book has 13 steps to help you control your fear, and six more to help you to control fear in others. To control your own fear:
- Be prepared. Accept the fact that a survival situation could, in fact, happen to you, and plan accordingly. Aside from physical practice, being prepared involves advanced planning, mental and physical conditioning, discipline, and an intimate understanding of the emergency gear you propose to carry.
- Train! Accepting that a deadly scenario could happen is not enough. Learn all that you can about survival and what your body can endure, and recognize and understand what your reactions to fear will be. Practicing skills builds confidence and strengthens a “can-do” attitude regarding your ability to survive.
- Don’t run from fear? When you’re afraid, take a step back from the fear and just notice it. Ignore the urge to analyze, judge, criticize, evaluate, or try to figure it out. Stepping back provides emotional space and reduces much of the charge around the fear energy.
- Stay aware of your surroundings. Learn to recognize the early warning signs of dangerous situations. Gain knowledge to reduce the perceived threat of the unknown.
- Stay constructively busy. Conserving energy as a survivor is key, yet do all that you can to make your situation more comfortable, reducing difficulties that encourage fear. Staying busy keeps the mind off fearful circumstances and gives you a sense that you’re in control of your destiny.
- Keep your imagination in check. Stick to known facts by separating the real from the imagined.
- Adapt to your surroundings. Prepare yourself to think and act like an animal without judgment over your actions. In a sense, if you can’t beat fear, join it. Formulate plans B, C, and D before they’re needed.
- Discipline yourself to think positively. Even when talking to yourself, strive to use positive, “I AM” statements such as, “I AM going to make it out of here” and “I AM going to be rescued.”
- Adopt a positive survival attitude. Keep things in perspective and focus your attention firmly upon the goal of getting rescued.
- Use proper breathing exercises to lower the heart rate and reduce stress.
- Ask for help. Whether you’re currently walking upon a spiritual path or not, it’s never too late to start.
- Use humor. Kind humor transforms crummy attitudes.
- In summary, Party On!
To control fear in others:
- Be a positive example. Maintain a calm presence and keep control, even if you feel out of control; inspire courage, hope, and the willingness to keep trying.
- Maintain discipline. Work toward finding and maintaining order and harmony within the group in a gentle, yet firm manner. Search out people’s strengths and assign them focused tasks to assist the group. Giving people things to do lessens the feelings of helplessness, and takes their mind away from the current situation, while giving them a sense of control regarding their destiny.
- Exercise positive leadership. Be firm, determined, confident, compassionate, decisive, honest, and humorous.
- Stay alert for early signs of fear in others, and, when recognized, deal with them immediately. Knowing how the people in your group react to and deal with stress is priceless. Be intuitive to the needs of others and offer whatever support you can. Remember that one rotten apple can spoil the bunch.
- Cultivate teamwork and mutual support early on. Perhaps no other experience on Earth will require such a tightly knit and supportive group for success than the survival situation. The group that initiates and maintains a positive mental and emotional outlook, putting all of its efforts and concerns into the welfare of the entire tribe, is an extremely powerful force for staying alive.
- In summary, Party On!