How To Develop A Survival Mindset

November 04, 2019

In the prepping community, what often gets talked about when it comes to survival are the tools, gear, supplies, and the actions that you need in order to survive. But one aspect of survival that is rarely talked about, but is easily the most important thing when it comes to survival is how you will mentally handle the situation.

I’m sure you’ve already heard or read about incredible stories of survival, where a person or a group has beaten incredible odds to come out alive after a catastrophic situation. One common denominator in all those stories of survival is the mindset of the person or group who are put into that situation.

In this article, we’ll dive deeper into the survival mindset, why it’s important and how we can develop it.

Why Some People Die and Others Survive

Whenever we hear amazing stories of survival, the focus is always on how the person survived and what we can learn from his or her experience. Though it is important to learn how the person survived, it is also important to know why others didn’t survive.

This is what experts in the Psychology of Survival, like John Leach, are focused on. They try to understand and make sense of why there are usually many unnecessary deaths during a disaster or catastrophe. Leach ’s study mentioned that deaths in a disaster usually occur in the first three days after it hits. But they discovered that a number of the people who died should have actually survived like the others.  

The study stated that there were people who only had minor injuries or no injuries at all, but ended up as one of the casualties. One reason for this is that people usually suffer cognitive paralysis following the impact phase of the disaster. This means that people usually freeze following a disaster, which results in complete inaction. This is why the study suggests that the fight or flight response should be modified into the fight, flight or freeze response.

One of the most known cases of people’s inaction causing unnecessary deaths was the 1985 Boeing-737 engine fire in Manchester airport. The catastrophe resulted in 55 deaths. Investigators were puzzled with the death toll since the fire happened when the plane was still on the runway and had not yet taken off. Some passengers were even discovered still strapped in their seats.

Deep Shock is the main culprit of people’s inability to act or respond in the face of danger. When people are put into an unfamiliar and dangerous situation, the initial reaction is that of a deep shock. Now, those who are mentally prepared can quickly get over the shock and act accordingly, but those who aren’t would just freeze up and wait for someone to save them or quite literally just die.

Cognitive paralysis also shows itself in the form of people just carrying on as normal, even after a disaster or lack the initiative to survive.  A study conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology stated that during the 9/11 attacks, some people in the twin towers who initially survived the impact of the planes hitting the World Trade Centers didn’t immediately rush for the exit. People waited six minutes, on average, before heading for the exit. The study also mentioned that some people even made phone calls, turned off their computers, or cleaned their area before evacuating. Though some of those who were passive actually survived, the lack of urgency in an emergency situation is alarming since every second count in these types of situations.

The Importance of A Survival Mindset

As I stated earlier, having a survival mindset is probably the most important tool you will need as a prepper. And if you look at our earlier discussion, you can see that the main difference between people who survive during an emergency and those who don’t is their mental state. Simply put, people who have a survival mindset have a higher chance of surviving a disaster or emergency situation than those who don’t.

Even if you are trained and prepared, having the proper tools, equipment, knowledge, and skill set needed to survive, it will all be useless if your mind and body fail to act on all of these skills and knowledge during a catastrophe. Take for example the case of this 24-year-old diver who drowned in 2015 due to an accident that shouldn’t have resulted in her death.

The female diver was a   trained diver, already having 1   5 dives under her belt, including the four dives that she did for her certification. She drowned when her dive buddy, who was having trouble with his weight belt, accidentally knocked off the scuba regulator from her mouth, as he was fixing his problem. After realizing what happened, he immediately tried to help her recover the regulator but his weight belt came loose and he had a hard time descending. When he signaled for help on the surface, they found the female diver after 15 minutes, unconscious and her regulator still out of her mouth.

Resuscitation efforts didn’t save the female diver and her autopsy revealed she drowned. Though it is a tragic accident, it would have been avoidable if panic didn’t overcome both divers and they remembered what they needed to do in those kinds of situations. Recovering a lost regulator or adjusting / removing weight belts are part of the basic training that each diver has to go through to get their certification. Had they had controlled their mental state when the accident happened, they would have likely remembered their training and acted accordingly.

This is why no amount of preparation, training or survival tools can help you if you are not mentally prepared for the disaster or emergency situation. 

How To Develop A Survival Mindset

We’ve already discussed the importance of having a survival mindset and how the lack of it contributes to a lot of unnecessary deaths during an emergency situation. To help you develop that survival mindset, here are some tips.

  1. Learn How to Control Your Mind Our mind processes numerous thoughts on a consistent basis and learning how to control and manage them will be beneficial, especially during stressful or emergency situations. When we are put into a stressful situation, our mind processes thoughts at a rapid pace and it is dominated by fear, hopelessness, self-doubt, and anxiety. These things are not helpful during an emergency since it won’t help us think clearly or remember important information.
    1. One of the first things you need to do is to become aware of your thoughts. Since our mind processes thousands of thoughts on a daily basis, we often don’t pay close attention to them. This is why it is easy for our thoughts to control us instead of us controlling them. But once we become aware of them, we can start to take control of our thoughts. Practice stopping in the middle of your thoughts, regardless if it is a good thought, a bad thought, or a neutral one. Doing this will help you become aware of your thoughts, thus allowing you to control them.
    2. Learn controlled breathing since it is the best way to calm and stabilize the mind. When you’re starting to feel anxious or panic is setting in during a disaster, take a deep breath through your nose then exhale through your mouth. Do this until you feel your nerves starting to calm down and your beginning to think clearly again. I usually close my eyes and count whenever I’m doing controlled breathing to calm my nerves.  You ca n try it out yourself and see if it will help you.
    3. You can also practice having a mantra. The Navy encourages their recruits to have a personal mantra that they can chant under their breath when they are put into stressful situations. These mantras would serve as a positive reinforcement to keep recruits from thinking negative thoughts. Your mantra doesn’t need to be lengthy, it can be as simple as one word that will allow you to remove negative thoughts from your mind. You can choose the word “Survive” or “Live” as your mantra. 
    4. If you have a family, especially kids, thinking of them can actually help you calm down. If they see you starting to panic, that emotion will transfer to them and they too will start panicking. But if they see that you are calm and collected, especially when you are giving them instructions or directions, their fears and anxiety will start to lessen as well. 
    5. Though every second count during a disaster, it’s important that you calm yourself first and remove any fears, anxiety, or negative thoughts that are flooding your mind. Doing this will help you think clearly and perform the right actions. Remember, if you are prepared when a disaster strikes, your chances of survival already increases and there’s really no reason for you to feel anxious or panic.
  2. Learn How to Set Goals – Setting goals is important in helping us achieve an outcome that we desire. This exercise is also invaluable in developing a survival mindset during emergency situations. When we are put in a stressful situation, everything can become overwhelming. It will be hard to keep track of all the things that we need to do to ensure our survival when disaster struck. But breaking down the process into simple goals can do wonders and help you process things easier. In setting emergency goals, remember to set short-term, mid-term, and long-term goals.
    1. Short-term goals can be as simple as surviving in the next 5 to 10 minutes. This could be as simple as taking cover under a sturdy table during an earthquake or evacuating the building after the initial shaking. You can also include checking yourself and your family members after an initial disaster to make sure everyone is alright.
    2. Mid-term goals are the ones you set after surviving the initial disaster. This could include finding food, water, and shelter or a safe place that you can stay for a bit while planning the next move. You can also add applying first aid to you or to a member who is injured and finding a mode of transportation that you can use to get out.
    3. Long-term goals here doesn’t mean what your plan will be 1 year down or even 1 month down the line. In a disaster situation, a long-term goal can mean what your actions will be in the next 2 to 3 days. An example of a long-term goal is going to the evacuation center or to your bug out place. Another example would be finding medical help, especially if one of your family members need it. Meeting up with your family is another example of a long-term goal, especially if you’re all separated when the disaster took place.
    4. Setting goals can help straighten your mind to focus on one thing at a time instead of being scattered trying to think of every action that you need to take. Doing this will allow you to remember properly the actions that you will need to do in a particular situation.
    5. Constantly check the goals that you set and revise them if needed.
  3. Learn How to Visualize – Rehearsing in your mind the steps and actions that you would take in an emergency situation is a great way to prepare yourself mentally. Visualizing trains our mind how to react to certain to stressful situation since we’ve already seen it happen in our thoughts. This is a practice that professional athletes and special forces units like the Navy SEALS incorporate in their training.
    1. Imagine what you will do when an earthquake strikes in your area. Visualize yourself dropping and seeking cover during the shake then grabbing your supply bag and evacuating the building or house afterward. Picture the routes that you will be taking on your way to your bug out place and seeing what possible dangers that you might encounter and taking the necessary actions in that situation.
    2. Don’t hesitate to actually do all of the things that you are visualizing as part of your practice.
    3. Doing this will train your mind on the actions and steps that you will do during and after an emergency. It can also help you remember quickly certain things like where you placed your supply kit or what path you will need to take to go to your bug out place.
    4. Visualizing will also give you a mental picture of the sequence of events that can unfold during and after a disaster and how you should respond to them. In this way, your mind won’t be in shock during an actual disaster and can respond immediately.
  4. Keep on Practicing and Training – The last thing you need to do to help you develop a survival mindset is to keep on training and practicing what you’ve trained for. Constant repetitions will help your body and mind remember what it needs to do in certain situations. It prepares you both mentally and physically for the task ahead. 
    1. Constantly practice the breathing techniques that you learned to help you calm down. There are always situations in our daily lives where we are required to take a step back and calm down before taking action or saying something. Use the breathing technique in this situation to help you practice and perfect it. 
    2. Physically do the things that you are visualizing in your head. Do the actual duck and cover routine or walk the trails and routes that you will take to get to your bug out place. Not only will this help you improve your mental imaging, but it is actually preparing your mind and body to properly respond during an emergency situation.
    3. Professionals like firefighters usually train, practice and review what they need to do daily to keep them focused, and always ready should an emergency situation arises. You do n’t need to train as often or as regularly as them. But setting aside a few hours a week just to train and review the things you will do during an emergency will help you in developing that survival mindset.


No one really knows when a disaster or catastrophe will strike, which is why I always encourage everyone to prepare. But preparation should not just stop with getting the supplies needed, having the necessary tools, and learning important skills. Your preparation should also include having a survival mindset since this aspect can actually determine whether you will survive during a disaster or not.

If you have additional tips or suggestions, please put them in the comments section below. I always like learning from the community. If you enjoyed this article, please click the like button and share it on social media.

As always, stay safe out there.

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