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Most people realize that a person’s mental state and attitude play a big part in survival situations. I don’t believe a strong mind is something we are born with but developed through our environment and experiences. In my opinion a strong survivor mind set is the single most important factor to success in survival situations, climbing, sports, work, and life. What does this really mean? Here are some factors that help define a good survival frame of mind. The main focus of this article is to break down elements of survival psychology and show you how to develop a survivor mindset.

1. Develop a Strong Will to Survive and Succeed. To keep your will strong don’t focus on the negatives of your situation and keep a positive mental attitude. Envision yourself succeeding, Set small realistic goals and push yourself to attain them. Before a survival situation put yourself in situations where you have to challenge yourself, the best method for most people is through physical exercise. Others have founds success by reading motivational and survival books.

2. In any expedition, trip, life, or survival situation things don’t always go as planned. Bouncing Back is a critical skill. When things go wrong view them as a learning experience and keep trying. You might get angry or frustrated, if you find it hard to cool down, pick a physical task (like walking, digging, or gathering firewood) this will help channel your anger to attaining a need. Be glad you’re alive and think of what you’ll do better next time. Remember no matter how bad your situation it could be worst. Good exercises to hone your ability to bounce are tackling projects at your work place, by selecting a project around the house, or trying to troubleshoot your computer. Before you start the project envision yourself starting the task and keeping a cool mind, learning and adjusting to the flow, and then complete the task.

3. Be Realistic. Hope for the best but prepare for the worst. Doing this help keep things predictable and help you plan and face challenges. Survivors who expected to get rescued early on had a much harder time surviving when it didn’t happen compared to others who prepared themselves for the worst.

4. Overcome panic. Fear can help keep you out of trouble and some amount of it is ok, you want to avoid panicking. If you feel yourself freezing or having a panic attack, sit down, relax, and focus on your breathing (deep breaths in, slow breaths out). Remember you are In Control of You Actions and most of the things we worry about aren’t worth worrying about in the big scheme of things. Training and rehearsing emergencies and situations in your mind and envisioning your actions can help prevent panic. Recently on a climb I was rehearsing my actions in the event of a fall, avalanche, and rock fall when a big rock broke lose and came toward me, I reacted quickly, moving out of the way, yelling rock, and digging in my ice axe. Try and separate real danger from perceived danger. Being out in the open in pitch dark is a persevered danger versus the real danger of being on the side of a rock face un-anchored in the dark. Not being patient can be a form of panic; it takes a lot to sit hungry in a protected shade shelter during the heat of the day in the desert. Not acting constructively can lead to a series of mistakes which result in exhaustion, injury, and sometimes death. Death does not come from hunger pains but from the failure to manage or control ones emotions and cognitive thinking.

5. Become comfortable with discomfort. There are many environmental and physical factors that survivors and those in the wilderness are exposed to. They include extremes of temperature (cold, hot, wind, rain, and snow), hunger, aversion to different means of sustenance (eating bugs, drinking dirty water, etc…), loneliness, darkness, being dirty, etc… The best way to overcome this is by being open minded in life. Don’t let the small stuff phase you. Back home try different ethnic foods, sleep in different places, don’t be afraid to go out for a walk in the rain (without your Gortex), travel, try new activities, learn a new language, and spend some time alone.

6. Plan and Act. Recognize your needs, make a plan and act on it. Life changes, keep your plan flexible and change according to your environment. Remember to prioritize your needs. Failure to decide on a course of actions is actually a decision for inaction. If your not sure what to do first start with an easy task to build your confidence. In the Air Force, one of the first tasks I would teach my students was to get water and stay hydrated. Your mind and body are intertwined, taking care of yourself physically will strengthen your will to survive and succeed. Read the article on prioritizing in the outdoors.

7. Harness your emotions. If you’re a spiritual person pray and focus on your religion. Religion can help you overcome fear and panic, but it can also prevent you from acting to get yourself out of a situation. If you have loved ones think about them and how much they need you. Almost all survivors who have overcome situations against insurmountable odds have cited family as one of the reasons for hanging on. I once read about a POW in Vietnam, who was motivated to survive out of hate, he wanted to live so he could continue to fight. Love, hate, anger, and happiness are powerful emotions. The key is to channel them toward driving you to survive and not letting them weaken your will.
8. Build confidence. To do this, prepare yourself for your trip. Train both technically and physically. Challenge yourself!

Many of the above elements of a strong survivor mindset are intertwined and focusing on one helps the others. Example if you successfully bounce back from a mistake this will build your confidence and increase your will to survive and succeed.

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