What Does it Take To Have A Survival Mindset: The Psychology of Survival

It is not an easy time to be alive. Today’s world is filled with endless world issues, social protests, economic uncertainty, and political unrest. However, no matter how hard it gets, there is a primal will to live. Self-preservation is the root of all instincts. Amidst all the difficulties and challenges of life, no matter how hard the circumstances there is, deep down inside of us – a will to live.

Survival methodologies are often reduced to the practical physical aspects often disregarding the psychological aspects of survival. In a moment of crisis or emergency, your ability to make it out alive largely depends on your state of mind.

The intensity and overwhelming nature of experience can easily overwhelm us, leaving us paralyzed by fear. One of our greatest enemies in any survival situation is often our own mind. The question is – can we control our mind long enough to make it out alive? Do you have what it takes?

The Importance of a Survival Mindset

When we think of survival, what usually comes to mind are: hoarders stockpiling food and water, wilderness shelter plans, bug-out escape routes in case of social unrest etc… However, no matter how much we prep or how much gear and food we have stockpiled if we have not learned how to control our mind in the face of fear, how to adapt to situations and act from a place of non-reaction then no matter how much we prepare we may find out mind to be our greatest enemy.

Having a set of basic survival skills is crucial for getting through emergency situations. Learning how to tie a knot, start a fire, build a shelter, find water, are all helpful in knowing, though being able to control our emotive state in the face of a life or death situation will ultimately be the thing that will keep us alive.

There are many stories of people who have, against odds, survive days without water, and weeks without food, stranded and alone in the wilderness, and were able to make it out alive. Many of these stories like Danny Boyle, who survived 127 hours without water and had to amputate his own arm in a remote canyon, or the frostbitten leg broken Joe Simpson who had to crawl for 4 days to get to Everest base camp.

These stories show us that overcoming life-threatening and physically debilitating circumstances had more to do with our mind’s response to a situation more than anything else.

However, controlling our emotional reactions is much more subtle than just repeating the mantras taken off the back cover of our favorite self-help book. As warm and fuzzy as it feels to “think positive” or “develop a winning mentality” they might not be enough to see you through the night.

Survival Mentality

Survival Mentality: The Psychology of Staying Alive

To survive means to be able to adapt and have the capacity to change according to our circumstances and environment. We often live in reaction to what we are experiencing. Instead of simply moving with the needs that arise in the moment, whether that is the need to start a fire, find shelter, get food, we react to our thoughts about it, “Oh, I’m not going to be able to start a fire” or “I’m going to be so uncomfortable in my shelter” or “I’m so hungry, how am I going to find food?

Instead of confronting and acting on what is right in front of us, our actions come from our reactions to our negative thoughts. By rooting yourself with the immediacy of the situation you become transported to the reality of the situation, rather than your thoughts about it.

It’s not that we shouldn’t have negative thoughts, or that we need to only think happy thoughts, if you have ever tried to control your thoughts or only think happy thoughts, it’s like trying to not think of the pink elephant.

The idea is rather, more of recognizing that thoughts, though they may arise in a desperate situation that may not be all that is happening at the moment. When we are able to perceive the fact that, though there is panic arising in my mind, I am also moving my arm to fix my broken leg, we begin to act from a place that is not overrun by the anxiety of seeing your mangled leg in front of you.

We can not expect fear to not arise, rather we must learn how to act despite the feeling of fear. By doing that we are able to maintain some form of clarity so that there can be a logical sequence of thoughts that guide you toward whatever it is you need to do, rather than be completely taken and consumed by a powerful emotion.

The Psychological Narrative

It is often our psychological narrative about what we are experiencing that begins to water the seeds of doubt that can quickly become an overwhelming storm of negative emotions toward what we are experiencing. Surviving depends on how we react to the situation especially when our mind is confronted with something it doesn’t like.

It’s all good and dandy to say everything is great, when you are hiking in the woods and the sun is shining, but if the clouds come, and rain starts coming down and you find yourself lost, what your mind reacts from here is what matters.

If we are disorientated in a rainstorm and in a panic sets in, and the mind starts telling its woe is me narrative, it’s likely we will only make a bad situation worse, for how can we act appropriately when we are consumed with depressing thoughts about what is happening.

“Survival is 100% mental because the mind controls the body, its actions and reasoning.  Since it is so powerful, we must understand and recognize the conscious level dangers and even consider some of the unusual functions of the subconscious mind.
The Bible says, 'As he thinketh in his heart, so is he.'  The truth in those few words is evident every day.  If a man says he feels lousy – he will.  If a man says he feels great – chances are he will – all day.  The same applies to any given task.  If you think it will fizzle, it will.  If you are convinced you can do it, more often than not you will succeed.”  – Gene Fear

When an experience arises outside of the mind’s comfort zone, it will scream its discomfort. What we do from here is where the training comes in. We either learn to act despite the scream in the head or we are taken by the scream and are led to follow whatever it demands.

Following the dictates of the screaming mind, may not always lead you where you want to go. If the screaming mind will demand drinking some water, and if we blindly follow that thought and we are marooned on a lifeboat in the middle of an ocean, we will have only made a bad situation much much worse.

We will likely kill ourselves long before nature will.

Panic and fear often lead to irrational decisions that make us unable to think in the face of dangerous circumstances. In such situations, you are more prone to falling off a cliff or get lost walking in circles in a forest because you didn’t bother to pay attention to your environment.

While it also can be argued that you do need to have at a minimum number of wilderness skills, or outdoor survival awareness in order to get out alive if you are lost in a forest for example. However, theoretical knowledge of what to do in response to a crisis is not what leads people out of the wilderness, or gets them through a natural disaster.

Survival depends on the individual’s reactions more so than any other factor.

Mental Fortitude

Our metal state is the most important factor for survival. A strong determination of will determines the body to continue amidst unrelenting circumstances when everything else shouts no.

One of many quotes of the famous Albert Einstein:

"Whether you can or you can't, either way you are right"

This poignantly points to how much we influence what we experience. It’s as if our own preconceived notions of something become the very thing that we experience, rather than what is actually there.

Our own fear is the masks from which we see.

The movement of the clouds in the sky, the birds flying across the horizon will likely not be noticed if we are afraid that the storm may come. It may and it may not, but it is our fear that will make us unable to move and do what needs to get done to get out of the rain.

Enemies to Survival

Every invention that has ever been had by man, has started with an idea, and every idea that was ever born came from a belief in oneself. A motivation to move beyond what circumstances that the mind dictates.

Without the ability to move forward, man would collapse in the face of any challenge. Mental fortitude is what gets long-distance runners across the finish line when the physiology scream no, this can not done. The idea alone is what allows you to go beyond what can be done.

Just like there are forces in us that move us forward, there are also enemies that sabotage our ability to act in response to a survival situation.


Fear can be a major enemy of the mind. It can come in a powerful emotive onslaught, or it can just come as a primal instinct, one that can be used as fuel to move forward. Fear is one of the driving forces that comes when the mind panics which can be triggered when the mind is left in an unknown situation.

Fear will bleed into other parts of your mind if it’s left to its own devices. The difficult thing about fear is that it is entirely the creation of the mind and not the circumstances.

Think about it this way. Not everyone fears snakes. Snakes are not inherently anything. And yey many people fear them. Put a survival junkie in the wilderness and he won’t be afraid at all. And then put a city slicker in the middle of Alaska and in he would likely freak out!


Apathy is the result of the lack of motivation to move forward. The mind will resist some things it must do in order to survive challenging circumstances. With it will come a sense of fatigue that can seep into the bones when the mind wanders and becomes filled with doubt and fear.


The entire structure of the mind is such that it is constantly in the pursuit of ease and pleasure and in the avoidance of pain. Modern psychology is catching up to what the great Stoic philosophers stated some thousands of years ago when they said that pain is nothing more than a rough sensation on the body which amounts to little, how we react to it is what matters.


Loneliness does not only strike us where we are along on a mountain top, as many people experience loneliness when they are surrounded by people in a big city. Loneliness then seems to be more of an emotional psychological response that does not really depend on our physical situation.

Of course, being stranded in the wilderness you are likely to experience loneliness, however, it like many other emotions can strike us at any moment.

How to Develop a Survival Mindset?

How might we begin the process of developing our mind to be able to survive amidst life’s challenging situations?

“Everything that happens is either endurable or not,” the emperor wrote, “If it is endurable, then endure it, stop complaining. If it is unendurable… then stop complaining, your destruction will mean its end as well.”

This attitude of facing an obstacle in taking it on fully makes the problem less of something to overcome and more of just what is there happening in the moment.

We continually do battle with our experience. There is continual friction between what we see and hear and our emotional somatic experience of it that we are forever locked in this response mode, often called the fight or flight mode.

The fight or flight mechanism is something long held within psychology as the mind-body’s natural response mechanism that is triggered in any given situation. This model does well to illustrate how rooted our mind-body is to this reactionary mindset.

However, what this model fails to do is give us any way out, it reduces our capacity to only two possible states of response, without allowing for any other possibility.

So the question is – is there another possibility?

Is there another response that the mind-body can make in any given moment or are we forever reduced to one or the other? Forever caught it the polarity of to do or not to do.

If we dig a little deeper we stumble on this same predicament that has been questioned over and over again in some form for generations. Both Shakspearseapre’s, to be, or not to be and Descrate’s I think, therefore I am, are rooted in this same dilemma.

The ancient culture of Japanese zen, speaks about the ability to accept the things that are out of your control. When we are able to accept our circumstances as they are, then we no longer fight against what is happening.

Another time and another culture, the great Marcus Aurelius wrote

"The impediment to the action advances action, what stands in the way becomes the way" 

What he and the Japanese monks were pointing out is perhaps this third possibility. This new and altogether different approach to how we approach our experience.

As our mind is constantly reacting to our circumstances we often miss the action that is most appropriate. Action in the face of an obstacle can only be overcome when we are not in reaction to it.

It’s the same as saying that the solution to a problem can never be found by the same level of mind where the problem was found. We often affirm the reality of a problem so strongly that it is only in this affirmation that the problem exists.

Without continually saying there is a problem – is there?


The question of survival seems to be undeniably rooted in this psychological response mechanism that appears to have a deep underlying root that makes up the human mind. The deeper go sooner or later we stumble upon these fundamental questions that have plagued humanity since its outset. Whether or not we can solve the apparent dilemma will be up to us.





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