The Survival Mindset

The success of an individual in a survival situation is dependent upon several variables including knowledge, skills and even a fair amount of luck. One of the other components that everyone should have is a mindset for survival; the ultimate survival tool. It just so happens that everyone has a brain, so training for a specific mindset is something that anyone can do regardless of economic status, physical capability, etc. The brain is the ultimate survival tool; there are cases where individuals with no actual training have survived potentially deadly situations because of their mindset. Because we all have a brain, there should not be much in the way of obstacles or excuses for an individual to train their mind to operate at its peak during a time of trouble.

When there is too much stress on a person from any situation(s) there are some natural things that happen in a person when placed in this situation. It is important to remain objective when considering the reactions of individuals to stress or trauma. Every single person will react in his or her own way, and there is no precise means of predicting what an individual will do in a given situation. When evaluating stress from a disaster, let’s first look at the emotional and physical responses that one can experience from stress.

A quick note first, everyone that is placed in a stressful enough situation will react in one of three ways: fight, flight or freeze. This basically means that there are those who will stay put and take a problem head on, some will retreat from the issue and others will just freeze and do nothing. I have seen all three of these responses. If you are part of a group, training together and having similar mindsets will help prevent the group from going three different ways at a critical moment. That said, a group would always need to keep tabs on each other because every member will react differently to a given set of circumstances.

Emotional responses to stress

  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Frustration
  • Depression
  • Loneliness
  • Boredom
  • Guilt

These are all common emotional responses to stress. It is possible that someone could have one or more of these emotional reactions, or it may seem like someone does not experience any of these (although not very likely). At the same time, this is only a short list of possible emotions that one could have in a survival situation so only the situation will reveal the precise emotional reactions.

Physical responses to stress

Once again, this is not an end all, be all list of possibilities, but these are some of the common physical reactions that people have to stressful situations. The reactions that a person may have can vary and may even evolve from one reaction to a different type of reaction.

  • Angry outbursts
  • Constant worrying
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Carelessness
  • Forgetfulness
  • Difficulty getting along with others
  • Lack of energy
  • An inclination toward mistakes
  • Withdrawal from others
  • Thoughts about death and suicide
  • Hiding from responsibilities

If the event is stressful enough or significantly traumatic (in any way), there is always the possibility that an individual could go into a state of shock immediately and may not necessarily fit any pattern of signs or symptoms.

As an example, a man leaves his home to go to the river and get water. On his way home he thinks he hears a child scream. Upon arrival at his house, he goes inside and finds his wife of 10 years and their seven-year-old dead and the few usable supplies they had gathered have been taken. This would probably do enough to put a person into some level of shock, which may give way to the emotions listed above and these other types of physical reactions in turn.

Causes of stress during emergencies

There are many reasons that a person could find him or herself feeling the stress of a given situation. Outside of the various factors of stress in everyday life (work, school, marriage, family, etc.), there are several common causes of stress during an emergency. Some of these causes include:

  • Injury
  • Illness
  • Death
  • Uncertainty
  • Loss of control
  • Environmental
  • Hunger
  • Thirst
  • Fatigue
  • Isolation

Once again, these causes of stress are not isolated from one another and there is potential for them to happen together in addition to happening separately. With many things stress related, one small crack in the mirror can make the whole mirror shatter if the crack is not dealt with.

Ways to train your brain

The specific response by any given individual to a stressful situation should be self-preservation. This is where things start to blur a little bit because to preserve your own life in a survival situation will usually require at least a bit of knowledge or skill. But remember, there are those who have survived dangerous situations with little training or knowledge because of the mindset they had. On the other side of the coin, there are individuals that have training and knowledge of how to survive but did not make it because their mindset ruined them.

Training your brain to a survival mindset is about taking the reactions that we have to stress and channeling them to persevere and overcome the situation. Having an element of control that prevents stress responses from going too far makes that stress work for you.

Exposure: While there are probably a few, most of us do not like to continually expose ourselves to the stresses associated with life and death, disaster, etc. When training for a specific mindset, there does have to necessarily be an extreme condition that one places him or herself in the middle of. The important element is that exposure is done incrementally, safely and that it gives a push the border of what an individual’s mind is currently comfortable with.

An example of what this type of exposure might be is a person who is not comfortable with, or afraid of, firearms going to a firing range. Once there, they just stand behind the firing line to feel the emotions they have when being around guns and the sounds and smells that are generated by them. This would be a great place for a friend who is comfortable with firearms to be there for support.

Self-inventory: Take a look within you and see what it is that you are truly made of. Continue to build strength where it exists already and then, having identified areas of weakness, use training and the people around you (family, friends, colleagues, etc.) build up the areas where you need to improve to survive.

Ground yourself in reality: Be honest about how you feel in certain circumstances. It is only through legitimate appraisal of your reality that you will be able to affect meaningful change within your own mind. If you a situation for what it is, and not what you would like it be, then an appropriate plan can be made and actions taken to navigate a set of circumstances. All in all, it is better to be surprised with an outcome that is better than your expectation, than to be disappointed because your expectation was far better than the reality of the situation.

Anticipate stress reactions: We all will have stress reactions in tough situations. Think about the circumstances that you could possibly end up in one day that will cause you stress. After identifying these situations, think about what you will need to work through them. Take this resolutions and work on them. If this is done, the end result will likely still be some type of stress but you will already have worked through it in your mind before, so you can work through the situation now.

Find the good: It is really easy to only see the negative in a situation. I’m definitely this way. I could probably take my wedding or the birth of one of my children and find things that were negative about those experiences. Even though I would tell you those are on the top of the list for the best things to ever happen to me. I’m not saying that every situation will produce a favorable outcome. As I heard many times in the Army, “You can’t shine a turd.”

Never the less, learn to look for the good in situations. Having hope that not all is lost and there will be something of benefit to come out of an event can be what a person needs to sustain their mental well-being for a period of time. Like if my house floats down the river from flooding, I wanted to remodel the bathroom anyway, right?

Learn to manage stress: Maybe it’s too easy of an answer but learning healthy ways to deal with stress will help to keep these stressors from growing to be too much. Some of my favorite methods that I use are deep breathing exercises, music and a technique called biofeedback.

Stay focused: It is imperative to remember what is at stake in a given situation and remain focused on the consequences of your actions. This is especially true if you are part of a group where everyone is depending on each other to get through a situation. Don’t allow the events on the periphery of a situation distract you from the key situation itself.

To overcome future hurdles now, by minimizing the stress of dealing with things in the future, training and exposure will go a long way to help. By having the ability to identify how a person will react (yourself included) in stressful situations and predict the scenarios that might produce these reactions, you will have achieved a stronger mindset. One that is better suited for survival in times of difficulty. Just keep in mind that it will be impossible to predict the reaction to every type of situation. While this leaves some doubt to be had, making the effort to improve the areas you have puts you above those who have not taken the time and steps to do so.

— Thomas Miller


About Thomas Miller:  Lives with his wife and three sons on an island in the Pacific. He loves fishing, woodworking, hiking, swimming, golfing, and generally anything that he can do with his family. Using his skills and knowledge acquired in the Army, honed through multiple combat deployments, and gained through the ongoing study of survival and preparedness, Miller shares his knowledge and thoughts on his blog, You can also connect with him on Twitter, @preparedninja.

E-mail me when people leave their comments –

You need to be a member of Restore the USA to add comments!

Join Restore the USA


  • A great bit of information sir. I found this read to be realistically honest with many things to ponder. I would like to share an example for everyone to consider. As you speak of knowledge being our greatest tool, I concur completely. Learning how we react to situations is a very important process and one that could be considered one of the most important lessons to learn.  Too many times, we hear about folks going off hiking on a mountain, only to be found weeks later, having died from exposure. No offense, but... not a whole lot of critical thinking going on there.

    I had to learn some tough lessons - about myself, before I got better at anything.  That was first to get over myself. Be realistic. Honest - with myself. I learned a tough lesson some years ago.  Surprised me beyond belief. See, I grew up in a very mountainous region, playing in the woods, camping, hiking - learning survival stuff, guns, you know... all of it.  A Mountain girl.  I had done all this stuff with people that were of like mind.  That made it great.  I really thought I had the bull by the horns - so-to-speak. I decided to take up hunting as I have been terribly disappointed in the quality of the food we purchase (if you even want to call it food).

    Now this is where you might laugh. And that is okay.

    I got up at 4am and got all ready to boogie on into the woods and sit in my tree stand and put some food on our table.  Got in the car.  Drove to the sight. Got out of the car and headed to the tree line.  All of a sudden.... it was extremely dark.  I mean I could not see my hand in front of my face.  I was suppose to walk about half of a mile into these woods and kill a deer.  That was the moment I discovered something I had never known about myself. That much darkness... shook me to the core.  I had never been alone in the woods, in the middle of the night, in total darkness.

    Needless to say, I had to deal with this. And I did. I started camping... alone.  I would make myself get up in the middle of the night, without a light and build a small fire so I could go to back to bed.  It was one way for me to deal with the fear. Face it. Slowly. I actually started by camping in the back yard.

    My point is that in the bigger picture, the things we realize about ourselves will probably be much bigger. So, the emotions could trigger much larger problems.  If the emotions I experienced in that moment when the reality of the darkness that was upon me is an indication of how I might feel, I knew I needed to reconcile things in my mind on other levels.  The emotion I felt mostly was fear. And if the intensity of that situation was a marker of what could come, I was in trouble.  It immobilized me! Literally. It took time for me to be able to bring myself to walk into those woods. And there was a ton of anxiety involved... The fear literally shuddered through my body and was physically painful.

    I can only imagine how bad that could have turned out had the circumstances been something more serious. Learn, train, test your boundaries, and know that as this article states, your brain is your greatest tool.

    ~ Sargent Pepper

    Source: Sargent Pepper  

This reply was deleted.