Survival and Your Irrational Mind

In this very practical way, lifting heavy helps you practice your self-control over fear. Compare that first truly heavy squat with your fiftieth or what happens when you have some epic grinds and failed reps under your belt. Watch some of the world’s best lifters making PR attempts. Their lifting form looks almost mechanical because their trained response to that particular stress is one of reinforced perfect form.

Survival and Your Irrational Mind

By: Nick Soleyn, Editor in Chief

“Endurance was tested on this journey under unique circumstances, and always these two men with all the burden of responsibility which did not fall upon myself, displayed that quality which is perhaps the only one which may be said with certainty to make for success, self-control.”–Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World, writing about the British Antarctic Expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott in which Scott and four companions would lose the race to be the first team of explorers to reach the geographic South Pole and then perish on the return journey. (Emphasis added)

Authors, explorers, and survivalists talk about self-control as being key to success and survival in high-stress situations. The greater the stress—the more quick-thinking a situation requires—the more likely you are to make poor or irrational decisions. Knowledge, tools, and information are important, but we are rarely equipped for extreme situations when we face them. I think we know this intuitively. It is part of what draws many of us to strength training. The fog of the unknowable future is part of what makes strength training attractive.

Something so generally useful improves our reediness for all possibilities, not just those we anticipate. Strength makes every other physical attribute better, raising our general physical ability. By being generally stronger, we are better prepared for whatever may come along to derail our quotidian norm.

But physical ability is not everything. Your strength may mean very little when you are confronted with sudden, stressful or emergency situations and unprepared. An EMT friend of mine called this the pucker factor when your brain starts down a path of irrationality, sapping your strength, your cognitive ability, and your decision-making process. He emphasized that you default to what you have practiced, not what you can work out in the moment. If you haven’t practiced, if your mind does not have some experience to relate to in those moments, you may experience a kind of short circuit in your thinking process, notable for your confusion and confused thoughts.

I remember, for example, thinking I was being pranked by a man wearing a clown mask and waving a gun. I was in college at a meeting of teachers and students. We were planning a trip to China to teach English for the summer. It was hot out, and someone had left a back door open despite it being nighttime in a rough neighborhood. A man came in the back door, gun in hand and face covered, and announced himself: “This is a robbery.” He had a small black revolver that he panned across the dozen or so people there. Everyone froze. And for several moments, I was sure that this was some kind of test. My mind went to strange places, and it seemed more reasonable that this had something to do with the trip to China than what the facts, and the clown, had assured us: that we were being robbed. Later, talking with others in our group after the police had come and taken our statements, a few other people mentioned thinking the same thing. Fortunately, no one was hurt. But the strange detour of our thoughts has stayed with me.

Most people, when we imagine how we would react in an emergency situation, imagine ourselves with razor-sharp focus and cold rationality. Why, then, does the mind seem to retreat for some of us facing real danger?

The explanation is one of reason versus response. “Reason” and “response” are my terms. Nobel Laureate and psychologist Daniel Kahneman call these two processes System 1 and System 2, referring to them as fast and slow decision-making systems, respectively. In the book “Deep Survival,” author Laurence Gonzales calls them “cognition” and “emotion.”

Cognition comprises reason and conscious thought, employing language, images, and logical processes. This is the process that makes fine calculations and is capable of abstract distinctions.

Emotion is a visceral response. Gonzales says it “refers to a specific set of bodily changes in reaction to the environment, the body, or to images produced by memory.” Emotion can drive powerful physical actions.

Survival Decisions

For most of us who aren’t Bear Grylls—or otherwise trained in or familiar with survival situations—merely being out of doors and without modern conveniences adds some stress to our decision-making processes. Gonzales writes, “for people who are raised in modern civilization, the wilderness is novel and full of unfamiliar hazards. To Survive in it, the body must learn and adapt.” Training, skill, and competence in survival situations improve your chances, but the very definition of survival suggests that you cannot adequately prepare for all possible scenarios. Disasters or emergencies take you as you are, whether you are prepared or not. While the individual with training may be better equipped to act, for the untrained, survival may depend on good decision making and (unreliably) luck.

The problem is that the greater the level of stress, the more influence your gut instinct (emotion) has on your decisions. Being able to stop and think may be your best bet in most situations, but it may be a luxury you cannot afford. And research shows that even if you stop-and-think, your gut instincts remain a powerful influence on your ultimate decisions. Your emotions always play a role—either overriding or influential—in your ultimate fate. Survival decisions are often a matter of taking in and processing information while wrestling the wheel from stress and fear.

Fear isn’t the enemy of survival decision-making—it’s not good or bad; it’s the reality, hardwired into our brains as a powerful survival mechanism. Fear puts you into overdrive and can produce powerful physical actions. In doing so, it tends to shut down your cognitive processes. Fear rolls back your thinking ability to primary responses—fight or flight, for example—of which you may not even be aware. Under significant duress, many people act irrationally—not because they are irrational people but because they are operating out of a fear response, and their responses are inadequate for the situation.

Rather than suppress fear, the goal should be to build self-control over your fear responses. That way, when something spikes your fear, your responses are more likely to be good ones.

Controlling fear takes practice. Think about the first time you attempted a very heavy, one-rep-max squat. Likely, all the hard work you put into your form was rolled into the unconscious reaction to the weight on your back. You lifted it, or you didn’t, but you certainly didn’t think about it, as your mind and body simply tried to survive. Having survived, you rack the bar, watch your video, and mostly just hope that your depth was okay.

In this very practical way, lifting heavy helps you practice your self-control over fear. Compare that first truly heavy squat with your fiftieth or what happens when you have some epic grinds and failed reps under your belt. Watch some of the world’s best lifters making PR attempts. Their lifting form looks almost mechanical because their trained response to that particular stress is one of reinforced perfect form.

Lifters regularly trigger emotional stress responses in a controlled environment. While we wouldn’t claim that squatting heavy trains you to handle emergency situations, it certainly doesn’t hurt—physically or mentally. The added confidence in your physical abilities likely may help you stay in control of your fear. Mostly, what lifting teaches us is that if you want to train yourself to respond well to stress, you have to endure some amounts of stress. Gonzales says that adaptation “is another word for survival.” Lifting is a nice controlled way to do this, but getting outside in the wilderness, being familiar with your surroundings, continuing to build your physical competence and knowledge all may come into play and train you to respond logically even when your irrational mind is in the driver’s seat.

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