Survival and Your Irrational Mind

For people who have never been in sudden stressful situations for which they were unprepared, your physical ability may mean very little if your brain starts down a path of irrational deductions. I remember, for example, thinking I was being pranked by a man wearing a clown mask and waving a gun.

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 or control over your emotions as paramount for success and survival. The greater the stress of the situation or the more “quick thinking” it requires, the more likely you are to make poor or even irrational decisions. Certainly, having the right knowledge, tools, and information is important. But life is such that we are not always equipped for the situations we face. The unknowable is part of the reason for training for strength in the first place. 

Strength makes every other physical attribute better, improving our general physical ability. Physical ability describes a general hypothetical capacity that exists right now for all possible (but unknowable) circumstances. By being generally stronger, we are better prepared for the randomness of life. 

But for people who have never been in sudden stressful situations for which they were unprepared, your physical ability may mean very little if your brain starts down a path of irrational deductions. 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 who were planning to travel to China for the summer to teach English. Someone had come into the room behind us and announced himself with, “This is a robbery” and a small black revolver that he panned across the dozen or so people there. Everyone froze. And I remember, for several moments, being 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. Fortunately, no one was hurt. But the strange detour of my thoughts has stayed with me.

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 relies on the distinction between “Cognition” and “Emotion.” To paraphrase:

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.” Importantly, emotion produces 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 any unexpected situations that may arise. 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 are boons to 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, your life 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 has on the ultimate decisions you make. It is here that the tension between cognition and emotion comes to a head. 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 final decisions. Simply put, your emotions play a role—either overriding or influential—in your ultimate fate. Survival decisions are often a matter of taking in and processing information but with added stress, and fear at the wheel. 

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. 

This takes practice. For example, this about the first time you attempted a very heavy One-Rep-Max squat. Very likely, all the hard work you put into your form went out the window as your body simply tried to survive. A moment of panic at about halfway down and your mind drowns out any thoughtful cue you were trying to focus on with the overwhelming imperative to “just stand up” with the bar. All of a sudden, your form is all over the place, and you are in survival mode. You stand up, 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 worlds best lifters setting 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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