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Worth Reading: “Survival Psychology” gives the mental baseline for survival

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BOOK REVIEW:  Survival Psychology by John Leach

One idea survival book authors may be able to agree upon is that mental attitude is critical. Countless documented cases  prove  your attitude and reaction to the situation,  not your gear, is the most important factor is staying alive.

by Leon Pantenburg

Some twenty years before the rash of “reality” or “Survival” shows, or anybody had ever heard of Les Stroud or Bear Grylls,  psychological studies resulted in a book about people’s  reactions  in emergency situations.

“Survival Psychology” by John Leach, PhD, of the University of Lancaster, England, was a groundbreaking study, that today is a reference source for many wilderness and urban survival bestsellers. If  some of Leach’s writing or thoughts sound familiar, it is because you’ve read or heard them before!

Swampy Lakes Trailhead is on the edge of thousands of acres of wilderness. Many visitors deny they will ever need emergency gear or training.

Leach studied survivors’  reactions, including those of Union prisoners at the horrific  Andersonville prison during the Civil War;  to shipwreck survivors; to people who made it through plane crashes and natural disasters. Distilled down to one sentence, here’s what Leach found: Psychological responses to emergencies follow a pattern.

One goal of  SurvivalCommonSense is to help you develop the survival mindset to stay alive. So, start with the baseline knowledge of what happens to people, mentally, in a survival situation.

Until you know what might happen in your mind, or in the heads of the people around you, there’s no way to come up with a plan to survive.

Survival situations bring out a variety of reactions – including some that make the situation worse.

Leach’s studies show that only 10 to 15 percent of any group involved in any emergency will react appropriately. Another 10 to 15 percent will behave totally inappropriately and the remaining 70 to 80 percent will need to be told what to do. The most common reaction at the onset of an emergency is disbelief and denial.

Here’s the typical disaster reaction progression, according to “Survival Psychology”:

Denial: The first reaction will probably be: “This can’t be happening to me!” But an emergency, disaster, accident or crash can happen to anyone, and it can result in a situation where your life is at risk.

This disbelief can cause people to stand around, doing nothing to save themselves. The 80 percenters in any survival situation will have to be ordered to help themselves.

Panic: Once you get past denial, there is a strong chance you may panic. This is when judgment and reasoning deteriorate to the point where it can result in self-destructive behavior. It can happen to anyone. To avert this problem, realize it may happen, and use the STOP mindset exercise.

Hypoactivity, defined as a depressed reaction; or hyperactivity, an intense but undirected liveliness: The depressed person will not look after himself or herself, and will probably need to be told what to do. The hyperactive response can be more dangerous because the affected person may give a misleading impression of purposefulness and leadership.

Stereotypical behavior: This is a form of denial in which victims fall back on learned behavior patterns, no matter how inappropriate they are. The Boss may decide to continue in that role, even though he/she has no idea of what to do. Sadly, the underling may also revert to that subordinate role, even though he/she may be better prepared mentally.

Anger: A universal reaction, anger is irrational. Rescue workers frequently come under verbal and physical attack while performing their duties.

A few years ago in Central Oregon, the Search and Rescue team rescued a man who had dumped his raft just before going over a waterfall. Miraculously, he saved himself  by clinging to a mid-stream boulder. During the whole rescue effort, the rafter denied he was in trouble. After being plucked from the rapids, he flipped off the rescuers, and walked back to the parking lot. He never thanked anyone for saving his life.

Psychological breakdown: This could be the most desperate problem facing a victim, and this stage is characterized by irritability, lack of interest, apprehension, psycho-motor retardation and confusion. Once this point is reached, the ultimate consequence may be death.

So, according to Leach, one key to a “survival state-of-mind” is to be prepared and confident that you can handle an emergency. This brings up another deadly behavior pattern: lack of preparation. People don’t prepare for emergencies (see denial), Leach writes, for three reasons: Planning is inconvenient, preparations may be costly and an ingrained folk myth says to prepare for a disaster is to encourage it.

This is all too common in Central Oregon.

Last November, I was at Swampy Lakes snow park near Bend, getting ready for a snowshoe trek. An older couple pulled up next to me, tourists, apparently, from the looks of their inappropriate clothing and rental equipment. They had no survival gear of any kind that I could see.

They struggled to put their snowshoes on, then asked if there were any maps around. I gave them one of mine, and offered to orient it for them with my compass.

They declined.

They also didn’t want the book of matches and a packet of firestarter I tried to give them. And here comes the quote that keeps the Search And Rescue teams busy:

“We’re just going out for quick outing,” the lady said. “We’re not going to do any of that wilderness survival stuff.”

…And she was absolutely right.

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3 comments
  • Leon

    I’m not sure. I got a copy through intra-library loan at the local library, and I’m sure your local public library is part of that program. I would buy a copy, except it is too expensive for my tastes.

  • petem

    Im guessing they didn’t come back. Some get out alive some don’t. The saddest part of that statement is what they do to other people… their families, SAR personnel and their families, people who live or visit the area, etc.
    Stupidity is universal. It exisists in ever place and culture. That truth will never change.

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