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Mindset is key to survival. Whether we’re camping at Lake Nowhere or safeguarding our family after a natural disaster, we’re relying on our ability to think, to assess, and to plan. And yet not all situations allow such careful assessment: Emergencies can flare up without warning, require an instant response—the right response—with no delay.

Fortunately, our brains are wired to work both ways—to assess carefully and to react instantly. By understanding the way the human brain processes information, we can use our brain as a tool to increase our chances of survival.

There are many threats in nature, ranging from wild animal attacks to drastic turns in weather. Understanding the psychology of your mental status is crucial to ensure safety in any emergency.

There are many threats in nature, ranging from wild animal attacks to drastic turns in weather. Understanding the psychology of your mental status is crucial to ensure safety in any emergency.


There are many viewpoints on what psychology truly is, because there are many aspects of modern psychology. Psychology, by the American Psychological Association definition, is the “scientific study of the behavior of individuals and their mental processes.”

Since the creation of the first psychological laboratory by William Wundt in 1879, psychology has grown to apply to include many types of psychology, including biopsychology, clinical psychology, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, environmental psychology, forensic psychology, social psychology, and many more.


Psychology revolves around the brain; in particular, its processes (both biological and cognitive) and its outputs (which manifest themselves as one’s shown behavior). In any emergency situation, it is key to understand the biological processes within the brain to ensure optimal critical thinking.

“The body’s sensory system, such as the eyes, will deliver information to the brain due to visual capture,” explains Christopher Volkmar, advanced placement psychology teacher from Cary, N.C. “The visual cortex within the brain may then route this input to the amygdala, sympathetic nervous system, and eventually, the higher cognitive areas such as the frontal lobe—the brain’s very own judgment center—and cerebral cortex for higher-level critical thinking.” But what about situations that don’t allow adequate time for reflection? The brain offers immense power in emergency situations, such as the “fight or flight” response.


Many are already aware the “fight or flight” response, a stress-induced bodily response triggered by the autonomic nervous system, is also referred to as the sympathetic nervous system.

“This response is reflexive and occurs without our conscious deliberate control over it,” says Volkmar. “It is designed from an evolutionary standpoint to help us to react before we are fully aware of what is transpiring.  In an emergency, speed may save your life.  All emergency physiological systems go into high gear, such as increased respiration, blood flow to the body’s extremities, pupil dilation, and increased heart rate.”

When in a situation that triggers fight or flight, our bodies react. Most often, when this response is triggered, the body is preparing itself to either fight the cause of stress or flee from it (hence the term “fight or flight”).


“A positive attitude is a must.”

“A positive attitude is a must.”

Little can be done to alter brain processes in emergency situations, but two things can certainly help one’s mentality: Positivity and preparation.

In any emergency, understanding that you are more than capable of surviving and getting through while maintaining composure is crucial. Not only will it allow you to stay calm and avoid panic, but it also gives the confidence you need to believe in them to resolve the emergency at hand.

“A positive attitude is a must,” Volkmar explains. “Self-affirming statements such as ‘I can do this,’ ‘I have overcome tougher problems,’ ‘I will not fail,’ and just generally fostering an optimistic but relentless attitude through positive self-talk cannot be overstated enough.”

Aside from positivity, preparation is also important. The simple understanding that various unexpected situations can and will occur is a must for any outdoorsman. Notes Volkmar, “Preparation is essential in a dire situation. Considering beforehand the type of perils one may face is crucial while preparing for these situations with the proper tools, equipment, supplies, training, and mindset.”

Being properly prepared with the right tools can give you the time you need for your brain to adequately assess the situation at hand and evaluate the necessary response for the best outcome.



• Understand how the brain processes information

• Recognize when the “Fight or Flight” response is kicking in

• Maintain a positive attitude—talk to yourself if need be!

• Be adequately prepared, both mentally and physically


Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the November 2014 print issue of American Survival Guide.