Safety / Survival / Army Field Manuals / AFM 3-05.70

Chapter 2

Psychology of Survival


2-16. Man has been able to survive many shifts in his environment throughout the centuries. His ability to adapt physically and mentally to a changing world kept him alive while other species around him gradually died off. The same survival mechanisms that kept our forefathers alive can help keep you alive as well! However, the survival mechanisms that can help you can also work against you if you do not understand and anticipate their presence.

2-17. It is not surprising that the average person will have some psychological reactions in a survival situation. The following paragraphs explain some of the major internal reactions that you or anyone with you might experience with the previously stated survival stressors.


2-18. Fear is our emotional response to dangerous circumstances that we believe have the potential to cause death, injury, or illness. This harm is not just limited to physical damage; the threat to your emotional and mental well-being can generate fear as well. If you are trying to survive, fear can have a positive function if it encourages you to be cautious in situations where recklessness could result in injury. Unfortunately, fear can also immobilize you. It can cause you to become so frightened that you fail to perform activities essential for survival. Most people will have some degree of fear when placed in unfamiliar surroundings under adverse conditions. There is no shame in this! You must train yourself not to be overcome by your fears. Ideally, through realistic training, you can acquire the knowledge and skills needed to increase your confidence and thereby manage your fears.


2-19. Associated with fear is anxiety. Because it is natural for you to be afraid, it is also natural for you to experience anxiety. Anxiety can be an uneasy, apprehensive feeling you get when faced with dangerous situations (physical, mental, and emotional). When used in a healthy way, anxiety can urge you to act to end, or at least master, the dangers that threaten your existence. If you were never anxious, there would be little motivation to make changes in your life. In a survival setting you can reduce your anxiety by performing those tasks that will ensure you come through the ordeal alive. As you reduce your anxiety, you also bring under control the source of that anxiety—your fears. In this form, anxiety is good; however, anxiety can also have a devastating impact. Anxiety can overwhelm you to the point where you become easily confused and have difficulty thinking. Once this happens, it will become increasingly difficult for you to make good judgments and sound decisions. To survive, you must learn techniques to calm your anxieties and keep them in the range where they help, not hurt.


2-20. Frustration arises when you are continually thwarted in your attempts to reach a goal. The goal of survival is to stay alive until you can reach help or until help can reach you. To achieve this goal, you must complete some tasks with minimal resources. It is inevitable, in trying to do these tasks, that something will go wrong; that something will happen beyond your control; and that with your life at stake, every mistake is magnified in terms of its importance. Thus, eventually, you will have to cope with frustration when a few of your plans run into trouble. One outgrowth of this frustration is anger. There are many events in a survival situation that can frustrate or anger you. Getting lost, damaged or forgotten equipment, the weather, inhospitable terrain, enemy patrols, and physical limitations are just a few sources of frustration and anger. Frustration and anger generate impulsive reactions, irrational behavior, poorly thought-out decisions, and, in some instances, an "I quit" attitude (people sometimes avoid doing something they can't master). If you can harness and properly channel the emotional intensity associated with anger and frustration, you can productively act as you answer the challenges of survival. If you do not properly focus your angry feelings, you can waste much energy in activities that do little to further either your chances of survival or the chances of those around you.


2-21. You would be a rare person indeed if you did not get sad, at least momentarily, when faced with the hardships of survival. As this sadness deepens, it becomes "depression." Depression is closely linked with frustration and anger. Frustration will cause you to become increasingly angry as you fail to reach your goals. If the anger does not help you succeed, then the frustration level goes even higher. A destructive cycle between anger and frustration will continue until you become worn down—physically, emotionally, and mentally. When you reach this point, you start to give up, and your focus shifts from "What can I do" to "There is nothing I can do." Depression is an expression of this hopeless, helpless feeling. There is nothing wrong with being sad as you temporarily think about your loved ones and remember what life is like back in "civilization" or "the world." Such thoughts, in fact, can give you the desire to try harder and live one more day. On the other hand, if you allow yourself to sink into a depressed state, then it can sap all your energy and, more important, your will to survive. It is imperative that you resist succumbing to depression.


2-22. Man is a social animal. Human beings enjoy the company of others. Very few people want to be alone all the time! There is a distinct chance of isolation in a survival setting. Isolation is not bad. Loneliness and boredom can bring to the surface qualities you thought only others had. The extent of your imagination and creativity may surprise you. When required to do so, you may discover some hidden talents and abilities. Most of all, you may tap into a reservoir of inner strength and fortitude you never knew you had. Conversely, loneliness and boredom can be another source of depression. If you are surviving alone, or with others, you must find ways to keep your mind productively occupied. Additionally, you must develop a degree of self-sufficiency. You must have faith in your capability to "go it alone."


2-23. The circumstances leading to your being in a survival setting are sometimes dramatic and tragic. It may be the result of an accident or military mission where there was a loss of life. Perhaps you were the only survivor or one of a few survivors. While naturally relieved to be alive, you simultaneously may be mourning the deaths of others who were less fortunate. It is not uncommon for survivors to feel guilty about being spared from death while others were not. This feeling, when used in a positive way, has encouraged people to try harder to survive with the belief they were allowed to live for some greater purpose in life. Sometimes, survivors tried to stay alive so that they could carry on the work of those killed. Whatever reason you give yourself, do not let guilt feelings prevent you from living. The living who abandon their chance to survive accomplish nothing. Such an act would be the greatest tragedy.

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All text and images from the U.S. Army Field Manual 3-05.70: Survival.
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