What You Should Know About Survival Psychology and Preparation

by Robert on July 19, 2009

Don't Lose Your Head

Don't Lose Your Head

The concept of preparing for survival may seem somewhat confusing. After all, how many people deliberately put themselves in a survival situation? The reason for this article on survival psychology and preparation is that you can find yourself in a survival situation at any time.

Events that can take you from your otherwise everyday situation and drop you into a survival situation can range from a man-made disaster like a suburban train derailment, to a natural occurrence such as a flood or bushfire. This article is primarily focused on survival in a natural environment.

Despite this, the psychological and social stresses caused by such an event apply in nearly all situations. The famous idiom “it will not happen to me” is one that I am sure you are familiar with. The fact is that ordinary people like us are thrust into survival situations every day, and to believe otherwise will lead to psychological unpreparedness.

Awareness of the problems that occur will allow you to prepare better for if and when you are thrust into a survival situation. Below you will find information on some of the causes and effects that psychological and social attitudes can have on both individuals and groups in a survival situation.

Low morale

Low morale can be brought about by any number of reasons, from something as basic as having enough water to freshen yourself up in the morning, to lack of warmth and shelter. Morale is usually affected initially, by some physical deprivation or feeling of unfairness and then compounds into a serious and sometimes very destructive problem. To maintain morale, try initially, to meet the basic needs (warmth, shelter, food, security etc.) of the individuals and the group and then extend this to the higher level needs like having a group purpose and feeling of belonging.

Lack of purpose

A lack of purpose, goals or motivation, is almost always produced by low morale.

The best way to reduce the feeling of lack of purpose is to have a plan and set goals that are within the capabilities of the group. The key is here is to ensure that the goals are achievable. After some success, the group will feel a sense of achievement, which will in turn boost their morale and improve each individual’s sense of purpose.

Lack of discipline

Poor discipline in the individual and the group, leads to disorganisation, a lowering of living standards, division within the group and has a detrimental effect on morale. The most effective way of creating and maintaining discipline within a group is for the group leader to establish a set of rules that the group agrees to uphold. Some key issues that may be considered would be a personal hygiene routine, storage of personal and community equipment, procedures for protecting the food store and water supply and a roster for tending the fire or other essential survival items.


Any conflict between members of the group, normally means that someone either feels they are being hard done by in some way. This can be in a physical sense or by their place in the ‘pecking order’ of the group. The most effective way of minimising conflict within a group is to ensure that work is distributed equitably and the pre-established are obeyed. It is important to note however, even in a survival situation, people are still human and some people will simply just not get along. This should be an important factor to consider when deciding on arrangements for sleeping, teams for tasks, etc.

Fear of the unknown

A very common psychological reaction to a survival situation is fear. There are three common questions that are generally the basis of most fears in a survival situation:

  1. When will someone rescue me?
  2. What is in this place that can hurt me?
  3. What is here that can help me to survive?

Fear of the unknown is a fear that almost impossible to dispel completely. The best way to minimise this fear is to keep everyone occupied and focused on activities that will inherently improve their confidence in being found, and surviving until they are. There are several activities that the group can be working on including:

  • working on signalling devices
  • organising a lookout system to both increase your chances of being found and also to warn of any impending danger
  • Carry out systematic exploration of the immediate area to locate food and water sources and check for any potential hazards

Perhaps more importantly than anything else is ensuring that everyone is the group is kept informed of everything that is happening. This will help significantly in reducing the fear of the unknown.

Lack of success

Being unsuccessful in completing tasks of significant survival value, has an extremely detrimental effect on morale and will undoubtedly lead to unwillingness of the group to participate in further tasks. It is important to identify the strengths and weaknesses of all people in the group. People who are handy with their hands would naturally be tasked with activities such as building a shelter; where as a natural hunter would be looking after setting traps and hunting for food. It is imperative that you ensure people are performing tasks that are aligned to their strengths, maximising the chances of the group achieving these key survival tasks.

Sense of insecurity

Insecurity, hopelessness and despair, is another very common mindset of the survivor. It is important for the naturally more optimistic and confident members of the group to express their positive thoughts. Physical activity on tasks towards improving the living conditions will help significantly towards alleviating a sense of insecurity.

Enhancing Survival

Training and preparation that focuses on the key elements of survival are the best form of enhancing performance in a survival situation. The key elements that contribute to performance in a survival situation are discussed in the following paragraphs.


Individual motivation and the group morale are by the far biggest factors that influence a survival situation. There are a number of motivational factors that drive people in survival situations. Some of these factors are:

  • a return to family
  • belief in a cause
  • the situation at hand

The morale of the group will significantly influence the bond between all of the group members. Increasing group morale will normally assist in motivating the members of the group who are struggling with personal motivation.


Practice, practice, practice. The only way to significantly improve confidence within an individual or group is to practice related tasks. Training broadens the individual and group appreciation of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Each time some form of practice occurs, the group will become more confident with each other and themselves.


People in a survival situation require both initiative and flexibility in adapting to their environment. Regardless of the amount of training, people can only be exposed to a limited number of situations; there will always be a situation that has not been considered. Practice in quick decision making coupled with success in achieving small short term goals, increase the adaptability of the individual and the team.

Energy Balance

It is very delicate balance when considering energy use in a survival situation. On one hand, the essentials, food, water and shelter must be maintained; on the other hand, you must conserve as much energy as possible in survival situations. Inactivity or a lack of confidence will result in poor decision making, a decrease in stamina and an early demise.

Resource Use

Physical and mental resources need to be conserved at all times. There are three key elements that are required for survival; water, shelter and food. Priority of activity should be given to these three essentials. Mental resilience provides the ability to relax and gain inner strength and can be developed through practice. Such resilience temporarily alleviates stress and provides encouragement individuals in their efforts.

Leadership and Group Behaviour

A group generally stands a better chance of survival than an individual in a survival situation. To maximise the benefit of a group survival situation, it is essential that individuals have confidence in themselves, their leader and the group.

There must be a formally recognised leader that every member of the group acknowledges and agrees to follow instructions from. The leader must be competent in satisfying the needs of the individuals and develop a high level of group morale. The group’s ability to cope with a survival situation is mostly dependent on their ability as individuals, and as a group, to complete tasks outside of their knowledge base.

Common social and cultural bonds that would normally exist within a group environment do not normally exist in survival situations. It is important for the leader to understand that in a survival situation, stealing, lying and violence may plague the group. The leader is required to exercise firm discipline and ensure the group maintains an appropriate standard of behaviour.

Group Survival Factors

There are several factors affecting group survival which the leader must consider to ensure the morale and appropriate standard of behaviour is maintained within the group. These factors include:

  • Use of individual Skills. Individual skill sets must be utilised for the benefit of the group.
  • Accept Suggestion. A leader must accept ideas and criticisms from every individual within the group.
  • Organization. For the group to be effective, every individual must contribute. Physical activity has been shown to reduce stress and panic, as such all members of the group should be kept occupied. There are 4 key factors that a leader should consider when planning any group task:
  1. Group members should be paired on similar tasks
  2. Pairing for tasks should be conducted daily
  3. There should be regular rotation of tasks to avoid possible perceived inequities in work load between members of the group.
  4. Rest and whole group survival planning should be conducted during the hottest parts of the day. Schedule tasks for morning or evening times.
  • Leadership. There will be situation where the leader will be required to make decisions without the input of the group. It is important for the group to understand and accept this. A individual decision is better than no decision at all.
  • Discipline. In a perfect environment, self-discipline would be sufficient to ensure group cohesion and morale. Survival situations will sometimes require imposed discipline to prevent individuals quitting a task.
  • Reaction to Casualties. Individuals will react differently to the sight of badly injured or deceased people. A casualty within the group is stressful since it threatens the notion of protection and invulnerability. The leader must redirect the focus quickly and ensure every member of the group is working on a task that will benefit the group’s survival.

Planning Requirements

When you panic, you pay the price. Survival depends on commonsense, patience, organization ability and tenacity. Physical fitness helps, as does a knowledge of basic survival skills. Keeping the saying in mind, “anything that could go wrong, will go wrong” in the back of your mind will allow you to be as prepared as possible if and when you are faced with a survival situation.

In order to cope with a survival situation some further factors need to be addressed that would not normally be considered. Some important questions to ask include:

  • How long will I be away for if everything goes to plan and what is the worst case scenario if something goes wrong?
  • What extra food will be required is something does go wrong?
  • Is water readily available in the area?
  • Is any specialised equipment required for the terrain or weather conditions?
  • Is there a requirement for any special medications?

Knowledge of the Terrain

It is essential to have a thorough knowledge of the terrain where you are going. The best way to find more information about the terrain you can expect is by talking to people who have been there before, read any books or notes about it and make sure that you have up to date and reliable maps of the area. Study all of these sources of information and try to predict any likely problem spots and plan to either avoid them or take extra precautions.

Methods of Travel

While in the planning stage, it is important to consider all possible modes of travel. When selecting your method of travel, it is important to consider how much food, clothing, water and what type of shelter you will be taking with you. Emergency procedures for travel must also be considered. For example, what will you do if the vehicle breaks down, the canoe gets a hole in it or someone is injured.

Weather Conditions

Weather patterns vary from season to season and also from year to year. Learn how to read the weather, or how to study weather patterns. One of the best methods is to collect weather map information, either from the local news paper or television station and thus build up your own forecast system. More up to date information (maximum of six hours old) is available from the Bureau of Meteorology via specifically dedicated numbers in the telephone book, or from hourly radio weather reports.


It is essential that someone back in civilisation is aware of where you are meant to be at certain time throughout your travel. The main reason for this is to cut down on emergency response times and to reduce the time for search and rescue teams to locate you in the event of an emergency. One of the most effective methods is to report your progress with local authorities such as police or national parks rangers, stating an estimated time of arrival at particular destinations along the way. Another method is to have an anchor person who has a copy of your maps and movement plan and then you check in by a system of radio or telephone schedules at pre set times each day.

Naturally the most ideal situation is to avoid finding yourself in a survival situation. Unfortunately even with best preparation and training, the unexpected can still occur. Following the advice in this article will minimise the chance of you finding yourself in a survival situation, but also if and when you do, will help you to be fully prepared to deal with it.

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