She paused momentarily, wiped her cheeks without looking up and then continued.
At the age of 18, she told me she left her parents’ home to get married. Now, 23 years later, she was alone with two children. Her husband had suddenly and unexpectedly decided he no longer wanted to be married. He left her and moved in with his new girlfriend.
“I’ve always had someone to take care of me,” she sobbed. “My husband took care of the money, the car, the bills, everything. I feel helpless and scared.”
The year was 1978. Disco was the rage in music, and this woman was my patient.
Why do I mention disco?
As I worked with her, Gloria Gaynor’s song “I Will Survive” became a crucial part of the counseling I provided because my patient could identify with the lyrics. In fact, she felt like the song was written for her in her time of need, which is exactly why she bought the record and played it over and over. She even wrote the lyrics down and carried them around with her as a reminder that she, too “will survive.”
By playing the song repeatedly, my patient kept giving herself positive messages. Before adopting the song as her personal anthem, her messages to herself were negative. In effect, she kept telling herself she would not survive and that she “could never live” without her husband “by my side.”
As we continued with the counseling, she “grew strong and learned how to get along.”
Giving herself positive affirmations, repeatedly throughout the day, helped her stay positive while displacing the negative messages. Although she did not know it, the survival messages she gave herself were the same used by elite military forces. They are also the ones that many cops and firefighters learn to tell themselves to ensure their own safety.
This technique can also help you, especially during a natural disaster or some other traumatic event.
WHAT ARE YOU TELLING YOURSELF?
When a crisis hits, the first reaction is denial. Our mind shouts, “Oh, no. This can’t be.”
But we quickly realize that it not only can be, but it is happening. What you tell yourself next is crucial. If you tell yourself, “I can’t handle this, I’ll never survive,” you will likely give up. You have created what is considered a self-fulfilling prophecy. And, in time of severe disasters, giving up equates to dying.
Your very survival depends upon believing you not only can survive, but that you will survive. The single most important aspect of surviving any crisis—whether a devastating hurricane, a terrorist attack or a family tragedy—lies in your mind. More specifically, your ability to react, survive and overcome any crisis depends upon your mindset … the messages you give yourself.
“But I don’t know for sure that I will survive,” you may be thinking.
True, you don’t know for sure that you will survive, but, you don’t know for sure that you won’t. So, you have a choice: believe you will or believe you won’t survive.
As Thomas Ford once observed: “If you think you can or if you think you can’t, you are probably correct.”
Be aware of your thoughts. Your thoughts are the messages, or self-talk, that determine your emotions and your behavior.
THE ABC’S OF EMOTION
Dr. Albert Ellis, the late psychologist and founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, formulated a simple model to explain emotions.
According to Dr. Ellis, we start with an A. In terms of survival, the A stands for Adversity. Some Adversity has occurred, be it an earthquake, major blizzard or terrorist attack.
As a result we experience C, a Consequence. The Consequence may be fear, anxiety, depression or some other negative emotions. Some people may think that the A caused the C. Ellis disagrees. He argued that the C is caused by our self-talk. Our self-talk is what we tell ourselves about the A. The self-talk takes place at B, our Beliefs about the Adversity.
We cannot change the Adversity, but we can change the emotional Consequence. To do so we need to be aware of the B. Identify the messages you are giving yourself, because they are creating the negative emotions. Dispute and challenge the negative thoughts. Replace them with more realistic positive and hopeful ones. The result will be a change—for the better—in how you feel and how you react.
Another helpful strategy for developing a survival mindset is to use mental rehearsal.
When you read or see reports of disasters in other areas, think about how you would react.
Mentally rehearse what you would do in the same situation. Think about specific actions you would take in dealing with the crisis.
Also think about how you could be better prepared to cope. For instance, do you keep supplies of batteries, flashlights, First Aid kits, non-perishable food, etc.? If not, consider doing so.
Mentally rehearse what thoughts would be racing through your head. Identify the thoughts that would contribute to negative feelings and replace them with positive messages. Mentally rehearsing your plan of action and your self-talk can be a sort of psychological fire drill to prepare you for the real thing.
When the massive quake struck Los Angeles in 1994, there was no warning. Just like that killer temblor, really bad things can happen at any moment, and the severity is increased because we have little, if any, advanced notice that they are about to occur.
In these circumstances, we often feel like we have no control over our lives. In truth, of course, we cannot control what happens to us. There are many things that we cannot predict or prevent.
What we can control, however, is what we tell ourselves about what happens. The messages we give ourselves determine if we will surrender to the disaster that has befallen us or if we will fight back and overcome it.
As Winston Churchill once said, “Never, never, never give up.”
WHERE IT BEGINS
When things seem really bad, consider a line from the “Lord of the Rings” novel.
“If you can say, ‘This is the worst thing that could happen,’ it means it is not the worst thing that could happen.”
Remember, survival begins and ends in your mind. Good thinking gives good results.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in a 2012 print issue of American Survival Guide.