The Psychology of Survival

For many in dire circumstances, just living day-to-day is very difficult. Working in a low-income area with many who are homeless, I routinely see examples.

Others I know are unemployed, or if they work, they do so part time and/or below their skill or education level – just to survive. Although these people have roofs over their heads, they also face day-to-day financial challenges.


Fortunately for now, most of us in this country still have jobs/income, homes, and food on the table.

Psychologists tell us there is a natural tendency for us to compare ourselves to others.

Studies have shown that regardless of your station in life, whether poor, middle class, or wealthy, we all consider ourselves better off then some, but not as bad off as others – we think of ourselves as somewhere in the middle.

Even the poorest of those living in developed nations such as ours, are said to be wealthy compared to most in third world countries.

So what does this have to do with prepping and survival? Well, when stuff hits the fan, those who have enough foresight to prepare now, know that all this will dramatically change.

Learning how survival psychology shapes your perceptions and performance, and even your interactions with not only your group but also with other survivors is a crucial part of preparing for a legitimate, society-toppling disaster.

The following are some ideas to help you become a prepper that is not only prepared mentally, but physically as well.

Life Will Not Be Like it Was

Be prepared to simplify. Arguably, having many things that are sold to us as a way to make our lives easier or better, may not really achieve that with closer analysis.

Certainly there are things that hold value to us now, that will likely become useless in a large-scale/long-term crisis. Smartphones come to mind as one modern-day example. I honestly love the convenience of mine.

Sure, as a prepper, I have other ways beyond my wall outlet to recharge it. But I try to remind myself that I’ve lived most of my life without one, so I can certainly do it again.

Learning to live without, as homeless and low-income people do daily, is a skill that can take your knowledge gained from reading survival articles or books, to a true understanding of survival and self-reliance.

Those of us who have become too accustomed to some level of luxury will find it more difficult to live without it, if forced to do so.

What luxuries do you have now that you can and will likely live without in troubled times? While taking advantage of them now, treat them as expendable, not essential.

Learn to Abide

Let it roll off. Most of us have pet-peeves or annoyances that drive up our blood pressure, or just rub us the wrong way.

Living and working with other humans, it is inevitable that we will discover what these are, but sometimes self-reflection and corrective action is necessary.

Once you have identified them, accept responsibility that these are YOUR issues, not the fault of those who irritate you by their actions or behavior. Life will be difficult enough as it is when stuff hits the fan.

Ask yourself – is it really that bad? In the grand scale of things that includes a major crisis, these little irritants will likely become irrelevant. Why not choose to make them so now?

Developing an attitude of ‘let it go’ beforehand, will not only help you during difficult times, but will probably lower your blood pressure a notch or two now.

Turn your eyes on those less fortunate. We’ve seen how Katrina and other disasters since have brought out the worst in some, but the best in others.

Among those, thousands from religious organizations around the country have flocked to these ongoing disasters to help those in need. Many victims who lost it all, connected or reconnected to their own faith after the crisis.

Make it a practice to seek out and serve others in need, even when there is no disaster. Try it sometime – when you’re going through your own emotional struggles, turn your thoughts and action to those who are in greater pain and need than you.

Pay attention to how it results in your attitude changing for the better.

Where the Mind Goes, Reality Follows

In any sort of high-stress situation, and most especially one where lives may be on the line, mindset is everything. Where your thoughts go, or more precisely stated where you allow them to go, will begin to dictate your reality.

Anyone that is involved in a high-performance sector, be it the business world, the sports world, the military, or even the courtroom will tell you that you must have your thoughts under control or else your performance will begin to suffer.

It is not too much of a stretch to assert that negative thoughts will foment a negative mindset and that will sink you.

This is not armchair psychology conjecture, or antiquated fortune cookie wisdom.

You might think that you are in control of your mind and that the thoughts you are thinking simply spring up based on the way your personality is wired, your conscious and unconscious interpretation of events and dozens of other factors that you are assessing and assimilating at all times, but this is not entirely true.

You might be surprised how much your brain can actively screw you over, and you neither have to acknowledge nor be aware of it for it to happen.

There’s an old saying that says “if you think you can, then you are halfway there”, and you surely will. Conversely if you think you can’t, you surely cannot!

Your thoughts become reality. No matter what you are dealing with, no matter how unexplained, unavoidable, unfair and lethal you must visualize a positive outcome. If you think you are doomed, you probably are.

This is not some New Agey crap where you are sending out vibrations into the universe that come back according to what you put out in some reflected manner.

No, a negative mindset will begin to affect your actual thought processes. It is the first tender steps on the road to panic. Pretty soon, you won’t be thinking very straight at all, nor very quickly.

With mind bogging down doubt will begin to infest every decision great and small. Pretty soon you are feeling paralyzed with indecision. Then, the paranoia will kick in.

The walls are starting to get a little closer. You are pretty sure you can feel doom stalking ever nearer.

Next thing you know, you are a complete, shivering wreck, just another wretch out there in a ruined world who survived by chance and prolongs themselves in spite of how pitiable they are.

Actively controlling your mindset works much like a muscle; if it is weak, flabby and out of shape it is not going to get you out of a jam when the chips are down.

And just like a muscle, the time to condition and strengthen it is well before you actually need it. Starting today, take control of your thoughts and pay close attention to how you allow yourself to think.

If your inner monologue is nothing but complaining, bawling and other diatribes that shift your locus of control from internal to external causes, it is time to nip that in the bud.

Instead, start replacing it by shutting down those thoughts immediately when they occur.

Clamp them off, cut them off like a snake’s head and actively replace them present, invested and positive or at least neutral assessments of the situation and, most importantly, when there is a problem immediately switch, mentally, to problem-solving mode and then get to solving as quickly as possible in order to improve your situation.

You will have to do both with great frequency and rapidity in the middle of a SHTF event.

Panic Must Be Avoided at All Costs

If keeping calm and keeping your wits about you is essential to obtaining a good outcome in an emergency situation, then succumbing to panic is certainly the most deleterious thing you can do, and will almost invariably assure you get a bad outcome instead.

Panic is beyond mere fear; everyone feels afraid in dangerous situations, and anyone who says otherwise is probably lying. The difference is that panic grips tight when people cannot curb their fear through discipline, previous training or sheer grit and determination.

A person who has given into panic will experience a variety of harmful psychological and physical effects. Included among them is a sensation of crushing fear, loss of control, profound concern over dying and the inability to think clearly about the future.

Physically, people gripped by panic could experience shaking, trembling, and sweating all the way up to and including pronounce nausea, a choking or breathless sensation, racing heartbeat, and a feeling of being dizzy, lightheaded or faint.

Some people even report numbness, tingling and significant loss of motor control.

For this reason, it is imperative you never allow yourself to give into fear under any conditions. No matter what, no matter what you are facing, if you are alive there is a chance to secure a good outcome even if it comes at terrible cost.

You don’t have to be a genius to see even a few of those symptoms to say nothing of most or all of them could spell disaster when lives are on the line.

When you need to be at your very best, Panic is the one emotion that ensures you will be at your absolute worst. Panic is also contagious, as we will learn next.

Attitudes and Emotions are Contagious

Have you ever walked into a room and immediately noticed the heavy feeling settling down on you?

Perhaps the opposite has happened, and upon entering someone’s home or a group situation you immediately felt a little better, more at ease and welcomed.

You are experiencing emotions and attitudes in a contagious way!

Humans would surely like to think themselves above simple herd animals, and while we are not necessarily herd animals we are definitely social creatures, and that means the attitudes, emotions and obviously the actions of other people can have a significant impact on our own psychology.

In the case of the former example, you might have walked into a room in the immediate aftermath of an argument, a serious fight or just some nasty innuendo between two or more people.

Everybody knows what this feels like, and it needs little in the way of explanation!

In the latter example when everyone is happy, joyous and feeling goodwill towards their fellows that too is easily transmitted to others in the group, creating a cycle of positive feelings built on positive feedback.

It is not just happiness and anger (or fear) that are transmissible, but all emotions, and many of them build up over time. We have all heard the saying that we become like the people we hang out with; this is a big part of the reason why.

It is also the prime motivator while you must constantly shepherd your emotions and the emotions of other people you are with. It is also a warning against willingly associating with anyone who is prone to panic, despair or major outbursts of unpredictable anger and rage.

These powerful emotions quickly and easily jump the gap when displayed in close proximity to other people, infecting other people who might otherwise be keeping it together with their negativity, making them more prone to breakdown, panic and mistakes.

Since the only people that we can be 100% in control of and in charge of is ourselves we should start there.

I have already cautioned everyone to be vigilant in controlling their thoughts, but your thoughts are only part of the equation.

Your outward expression and attitude, too has an impact, and you might be keeping your mind on problem-solving mode while visualizing a positive outcome, but if your external demeanor and posture is one of brooding worry, anxiety and sullenness that is likely what other people are going to pick up on and be affected by.

You should make it a point to unify your positive mindset with an equally positive external expression; not only is this good for the people around you, and will go a long way towards lifting their morale but it will also lift your own.

This is just another trick of psychology, as every little thing about our posture from the way we hold our shoulders, and stand up to the expression we allow our faces to wear will create feedback for our minds, and from there our minds will influence our external expression.

Also do your best, especially if you are in a leadership position, to squash the negative emotions of problematic group members however you can.

This kind of leadership training is beyond the scope of this article, but the answer might be a kind word, a joke, a reminder that everyone is in this together or just a strong hand.

Understanding Survival Stressors, and How They Influence Others

Don’t assume you will be living and surviving in a vacuum after a SHTF event.

You know and have likely planned for dealing with other survivors, but what you probably have not planned for is surviving the intermediate and perhaps even a long-term future alongside other people.

People I must remind you whose attitudes, actions and worldview have been severely altered by the trauma, stress and totality of the circumstances they find themselves living under.

Simply stated, it will not do to simply put people in a box according to their condition, or rather your perception of their condition, in the aftermath of an event.

Some people lost everything, some people didn’t. Some people have plenty of supplies and food, some people don’t. Good guy. Bad guy. It wont be that simple!

Stress affects people in funny ways and mood swings, to say nothing of entire paradigm shifts when it comes to someone’s personality, are going to be the rule and not the exception.

Some folks might go from introverted and solemn to explosively violent, even murderous at the drop of a hat.

Other folks who might seem like they have it all together and are walking through the apocalypse like you and I would walk through sunshine on a spring day could suddenly crack up and crumble over a small incident.

It is not easy to sort these things out, but you must gain as much understanding as you can about the psychology of others, not just yourself.

Humanity is a study in contrasts, at once amazingly durable both physically and mentally, and other times as delicate and fragile as an icicle.

You want to learn to detect and, hopefully, read the subtle signs and symptoms of trauma and psychological duress in others no matter what outward attitude and personality they are affecting.

This will help you solver internal, group-centric problems, as well as tactical problems caused by strangers. 

Do not think that someone you trust who also trusts you will come to you before they are too close to the edge.

I know way too many people who are far, far too prone to hanging on in a deteriorating situation that they cannot recover from who are too proud or too fearful of becoming a burden to reach out for help.

Also, do not allow yourself to be lulled into a false sense of security regarding unknown contacts that you meet out in the world.

Internally, people will no longer be who they appear to be, or who they were and that means you can be taken by surprise, perhaps fatally so.

Avoiding the “Firsts”

The value of training, planning and theorizing is that it gives your brain a sort of reference guide, a playbook if you will, for dealing with the unknown and the unexpected.

Getting caught flat-footed in any sort of novel situation is not a great way to start the encounter.

Humans do best when they have copious amounts of prior experience to draw from, or barring real experience at least some prior preparation.

And here is the beauty of it; there is very little practical difference, mentally, between prior lived experience and correct, deliberate visualization of a situation.

One element of preparing to live through the aftermath of a SHTF situation is encountering situations where your morals and virtues will be severely tested.

Plenty of people train for absolutes, or at least absolute in the context of their own value system, and not the murky, decidedly “gray” encounters and scenarios that likely will be integral to: You are attacked by a frothing mugger, so you defend yourself and your family.

That is easy. You are involved in a mass casualty event, and a few of your friends are among the casualties so you decide to help them first instead of strangers. A little more challenging, but also an easy enough answer for most people.

You should take the time to visualize and prepare yourself for are the really, gut-wrenchingly awful situations that can and do happen.

For instance, say you and your family are holed-up in your home in the immediate aftermath of a cataclysmic disaster. Natural or man-made, it makes no difference.

Some of your neighbors have remained in place as well, including your neighbor of 10 years who lives directly across the street. 

Outside you hear a ruckus, several raised voices, shouting and belligerent laughter. Peeking out of your blinds in your darkened living room you see a group of 10 men armed with a menagerie of weapons, prowling down your street.

They obviously do not have good intentions. As they approach your part of the street, your neighbor’s wife chooses that inopportune time to walk out the front door.

This immediately attracts the attention of the gang, and they race towards his porch in pursuit of his wife. Your blood freezes as you imagine what they will do to your neighbor and his family.

Now you have to make a choice, as of now your family is undetected: Do you remain hidden, race to intervene or try to slip out and put as much distance between you and danger as possible?

Your neighbor is not a particularly adept man at self-defense, and is armed only with an old revolver.

You are not God’s gift to close combat either, and have serious concerns about how you will fare in a brutal life-or-death scrum. What will you do? Even now you can hear the screams.

I do not say this to upset anyone reading, but I bring it up because these are situations that you might find yourself in and the time to confront what is really, really most important to you is not when the event is upon you.

You have to have a long, hard and grueling talk with that face in the mirror now, before that day comes. You must understand, in the clearest possible terms, what you are willing to sacrifice or who you are willing to abandon to achieve what ends.

It is not enough to consider the cost to yourself; also consider the cost to the people that are depending on you if you gamble and lose.

Choices have consequences. Not every question has a correct answer. Much of the time there are only trade-offs. Failing to understand and meditate on this can leave you with wounds on your spirit that will never heal.

Fortitude in Faith

Speaking of religion and faith, what and where is yours? After catastrophe hits, many who otherwise have disregarded it as an important aspect of their lives, turn to their faith.

Post 9/11, church pews filled. Growing in your faith now – in advance of a crisis, will have far greater value to you and your loved ones when things do go badly.

It is said that we are not human beings on a spiritual journey, but spiritual beings on a human journey. Science backs up the connection to the physical and spiritual nature of humans.

Studies show, and many doctors will attest to the fact, that those with a spiritual foundation and strong faith are more likely to recover and heal through illness and injury. Yet many of us, living in this physical world have lost touch with this essential aspect of our lives.

The Creator desires to be close to His creation. Ignoring this, some of us end up going through serious crisis. When that happens, people are often either drawn closer to Him, or blame Him. Don’t wait. Don’t blame.

Even with a strong faith, trouble and crisis will still happen. But a trust in God will help you get through it.

Never lose hope. In many ways, this is tied closely to faith, but for some it would simply be called a positive outlook. When stuff hits the fan, a common assumption is that things will never get better or back to normal.

While that may or may not be true, YOU are in control of your resolve. Seeking the positive may be, at times, very difficult. Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying, “Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.”

Are you a person whose glass is half full, or half empty? Having hope is something that no one, or no thing, can take away from you – unless you allow it. In times of extreme crisis you may be the only one in your circle of influence with hope. Never give in to hopelessness – be the one.

Love and forgive others. There is a famous scripture… “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

Many of us have lost loved ones due to accidents, illness, or just old age. Many more will lose loved ones during a serious crisis.

As the saying goes, it is better to have loved and lost, than to never love at all. Loving others, whether it be a monogamous relationship, children, extended family members, or just a friend, enriches our lives.

Loving others prior to crisis, by practicing forgiveness for the weaknesses that we all have, and letting go of bitterness, will increase your emotional survivability when trouble comes.


Most folks are as happy, and as calm as they make up their minds to be. What comes out of you emotionally) in a disaster, will be a reflection of what you bring into it.

Don’t discount the value of your emotional and spiritual well-being before, during, and after crisis, and learn to understand how your own psychological tempo will affect your conditions and how the mindset of others can help or harm you.

updated 09/03/2020

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7 thoughts on “The Psychology of Survival”

  1. Well said. My mother once told me “No one can hurt you mentally but yourself” If you don’t mind – it don’t matter.

  2. TG Yes I agree with what you have said. No matter how well prepared we are in all areas it will be s very intense level of challenge to survive. Please folks read The Long Emergency by James ?? This is an exc. and realistic scenario albeit fiction.
    Keep prepping. Arlene

  3. I am an invalid, but I am armed. My son and DIL are coming to live with me, as my husband is dying of sepsis. Both of them can drive (I can’t) and my son is an expert marksman. So I am far from helpless.
    My husband, alas, cannot be helped, but he would be the first to tell us to be safe.
    How many of the people who consider themselves helpless in fact have help they have not thought to call on? More than a few, I bet!


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