Psychology of Survival-Part 2

Bushcraft and Wilderness Survival Courses in Scotland

In Our second part of “the psychology of survival” we’ll be looking at Factors that play a big part in the mind of a survivor.


The first Factor we will look at is Fatigue. Fatigue can be experienced in its minor form in day to day life but can be rectified by a good night’s sleep. A lack of sleep has different consequences from fatigue and should not be considered the same. Fatigue is a complex physiological and psychological process which is not yet fully understood. Irritability is a common symptom of fatigue. It is also said that fatigue is insidious and its effects rapid. A practical example of fatigue comes from the mountaineer Mo Anthoine where he says making a cup of tea at twenty-five thousand feet can be a two-hour job: you must get out your warm sleeping bag in the dark, in horrible conditions, chip off ice and put it into the pot with your bare hands. It’s all so much effort that you say, ‘sod it, I won’t bother.’ And it’s easy to say, ‘sod it’ to all the hundred and one little jobs that you must do on a trip – basic things, like keeping your sleeping bag dry. But if you don’t do them you start to go downhill both physically and mentally.

Sleep is the next topic of discussion. Sleep is very important in a survival situation and there are different stages of sleep which all have their importance to keep a survivor psychologically strong. Sleep occurs in a cycle of stages – the first three stages are Non-REM while the final stage is REM.

REM is an acronym of rapid eye movement.

Stage 1lasts 5 – 10mins – this is the initial stage of sleep where a person closes their eyes and starts to lose awareness of their surroundings but can still be easily be woken up.

Stage 2 – this is the start of true sleep. It is still a light sleep however your heart rate slows and body temperature drops as your body prepares itself for deep sleep.

Stages 3 – Deep sleep stage. It is much more difficult to be woken during this stage and if you woke up you would feel very disorientated. During this stage the body repairs and regrows tissues, builds bone and muscle and strengthens the immune system. Not many people realise all the work that their body does during sleep – it is a common cliché but it is very important to have a good night’s sleep. REM sleep (also known as paradoxical sleep)- occurs 90 minutes after you fall asleep and typically lasts 10 minutes – the term REM comes from the random eye movements that occur during this stage. It is the deepest stage to be in however it also the stage where your brain is most active thus causing vivid dreaming. It is also characterised by inability to move muscle to prevent the sleeper from acting out their dreams. Sleep paralysis is a phenomenon that occurs whereby an individual awakens during REM sleep to find that they are temporarily paralysed – they cannot move, speak or open their eyes. This can either occur when the body is either transitioning from REM sleep to NREM (when a person is waking up) or vice versa and a person is falling asleep.   The body is said to possess at least two biological clocks (sleep/waking and body temperature) and that difficulty arises when these are thrown out of phase. Sleep deprivation is a favorite tool for interrogators around the world as it has a quick onset of paranoia, hallucinations and loss of personal control.

Hypothermia is also a very serious thing to consider during a survival situation. The cold can kill and it can kill quick. It is crucial that you try and maintain your core body temperature which is between 36-38 degrees. Hypothermia is the term given to the condition which arises when the amount of body heat being lost to the environment exceeds that being produced within the body. Hypothermia can become a problem due to different factors including not having adequate thermal insulation for the body, insufficient food or both. The most common way hypothermia sets in is by accidental exposure, like falling through a frozen loch etc. The body has different ways of trying to deal with cold exposure. Peripheral Vasoconstriction is when blood vessels in the limbs and skin begin to close which reduces blood flow and heat loss thus protecting your vital core temperature. Piloerection is when the hair on your body stands up and it is trying to trap air close to the skin which helps to reduce heat loss. Shivering is another way the body will try and warm itself up but not all people are prone to shivering. Fatter people are less likely to shiver than thinner people as the degree of shivering depends on body fluid and fat. Cold can cause some bad reaction in the potential survivor, these include impaired consciousness, anxiety, low morale, impaired memory, lack of self-control and even paranoia. In extreme situations people will even undress in the later stages of hypothermia and this is known as paradoxical undressing.

Hyperthermia is the term given to heat illness which arises when the body is unable to dissipate the excess heat it has generated. The body can increase its core temperature by internal metabolism, the environment you are in and ingesting hot food and drink. Sweating is the way the body loses unwanted heat. Sweat is a dilute solution of salt which the body converts to vapor to reduce body heat.  Sweat doesn’t work to cool the body until it has evaporated and even this process costs the body precious calories – it takes approximately 580 calories to evaporate 1 cubic meter of sweat. Hyperthermia can range from uncomfortable to fatal and heat exhaustion and heat stroke can be potential symptoms, both of which are facets to the same process. A key contributor to heat exhaustion is dehydration which is when the peripheral blood vessels expand to increase heat loss. Symptoms from this include headaches, nausea and vomiting. Heat stroke is an illness that is put into the same serious category as a heart attack and should be treated as such. Symptoms include gross impairment in mental performance, general confusion and headaches.

Hunger in short time survival is more of a distraction than a serious threat to life. During the period of impact and initial stages of recoil following a disaster the victim will be found to have lost their appetite. In an example, Steven Callahan who survived 76 days adrift in the Atlantic Ocean said he only started to fantasize of food and drink after his fifth day in the life raft. Psychologically, victims will show apathy, depression, irritability, emotional instability and impairment in concentration and memory.  During hunger the body uses up glucose in your blood first, once this is depleted it then converts the glycogen stored in the liver to glucose. Hormones are released which cause protein amino acids and the glycerol from fats to be converted into glucose in the liver by glycogenesis. Stored fats begin to break down by liptosis to increase circulating fatty acids, promoting ketogenisis and releasing the glycerol for conversion to glucose. Bone marrow will eventually be used following the above process, dispensable organs will degrade to their minimum level of function diverting reserves to all the vital organs like the Brain, Heart and Kidneys. Once these main organs start to diminish death is not far away.

Thirst is something that you need to think about quickly in a survival situation. The body water requirement depends on a whole range of things. You need access to water to make sure the body’s water balance is kept constant. The body weight is made up of around 70% of water (around 45 litres) and reduction of this will lead to dehydration.  Water can be taken in by the body through drinking and eating – some fruits have up to 95% water in them. There have been examples of survivors from the Juno Ship wreck in 1795 that claimed they were saved from dehydration by wrapping themselves in sea water soaked blankets. One survivor said that the pores of his skin absorbed the water and left the salt and that several other people reported feeling refreshed once doing the same. So, we touched on water getting in to the body so how does it get out. There are a few ways the body loses water – sweat, breathing are examples and exhaled breath is always full of moisture and on average you lose around ½ a litre a day from this.  Urinating causes an average loss of a quarter to a half litre a day. Also, you have a continual loss of water through diffusion. You can lose up to around 350ml of water through diffusion when you are sleeping for about 8 hours, that is the same as a can of coke.  Some potential survivors who feel sick will find it very hard to drink but need to try their best to even take a few mouthfuls of water. A mouthful of water every 15-20 minutes can help massively. There have been reports of people suffering from severe dehydration to the extent that they will drink the fluid from a compass bezel and even drink the fluid from their own blisters.

Thank you for reading this article and I hope it has been of some use to you. Survival Training courses are defiantly a good step to take for giving yourself that extra chance at surviving a possible disaster. Knowledge expels fear as we have all heard before and this is particularly true when survival is concerned, there are numerus examples of peoples training kicking in at the right time to save their own or someone else’s life.  Training is important but it is also very important to understand what your body is going through so you can cope with the stresses of a potentially life threatening situation. This article barely scrapes the surface of survival psychology and I urge you if you are a working outdoors or in hostile environments take the time to understand the psychological effects that could possibly effect you or your clients if the unspeakable was to happen.