Mental Preparation For Emergencies: Survival 101

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By Bryan Lynch •  10 min read

There are a lot of ways in which we prepare for natural disasters, survival situations, and emergencies in general.

We store water, food, medical supplies, and tools. We obtain knowledge to become more self-sufficient and practice skills such as how to start a fire in adverse conditions or how to find our way to safety without a GPS device.

mental preparation for stress

However, there is one preparation that does not get discussed all that much and it is arguably the most important one to have during an emergency situation. And that is mental preparation.

But what does that even mean and how do we prepare in that regard?

Proper mental preparation will give you your best performance because you have considered in advance what you will do in certain situations. In the following article, I will be discussing:

Please note that I am not a mental health professional by any means. What I lay out in the following article are my opinions about this topic and techniques that I have utilized or have heard others utilize with success.

What is Mental Preparation?

To me, mental preparation, a.k.a. mental preparedness, is the ability to think clearly, continue to analyze, remain focused, and to be able to cope with adverse situations.

Have you ever suddenly found yourself in an extreme situation and – for all intents and purposes – you just broke down? And I do not mean break down as in crying, but more like your brain just turned off. You were so overwhelmed with the situation that you literally did not know what to do.

Do not feel bad if you answered yes to this because we have all been there, including me.

Mental preparedness or mental toughness doesn’t get rid of fear, but it does get rid of – or at least reduces – that recovery time of shock in those extreme situations. This allows a person to better deal with the situation at hand.

Why is Mental Preparation so Important?

There is a great graphic that I often reference called the “Survival Pyramid.” This type of diagram is used a lot with many different variations, but below is how I am using it for this topic.

It very simply explains the relationship between and the importance of gear, knowledge and skills, and the will to survive when dealing with survival situations.

physical training and mental preparedness

The triangle is split into three sections with the top section being the smallest, followed by the middle, and lastly the bottom.

The size of each section indicates the importance of the category. The top is labeled gear, followed by knowledge and skills, and at the bottom is the will to survive.

What this means is that the will to survive trumps the other two categories. All the best gear in the world paired with knowledge and skills does not mean a thing if a person has lost the will to survive.

If someone loses their ability to use critical thinking skills and to cope with a situation, or in other words is not mentally fit, then the will to survive will soon fade away.

Fight or Flight and the Brain

I think a lot of people tend to dismiss stress as an overall negative thing. Stress that is unchecked or is at a continuously high level, generally is bad.

This is because it puts us in a bad state of mind and can have negative effects on our health.

But the right levels of stress can give us the kick in the butt we need to get things done. The stress that is felt when a person is in “flight or fight” mode, for example, helps us to determine the safest course of action at that moment. But if someone is constantly in that frame of mind, then they may start to become a bit unhinged and will not be thinking clearly.

How to be Mentally Prepared for Emergencies 

The truth of the matter, in my opinion, is that it is extremely difficult – if not impossible – to be fully prepared for all emergencies. This is especially true as it relates to mental preparedness.

Part of the reason is that we do not know what the future will bring, and thus every detail of an emergency is not known until we are in it. However, there are a few steps you can take to put yourself in a better position.

Here are some things that you can do to be better mentally prepared before and during an emergency:

1. General Preparations

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The worst thing that you can do that adversely affects your mental game, is to not be prepared at all.

Take a moment and think about the following scenario:

Imagine two different people living in the same area when a disaster strikes.

One person does not have much in their home in terms of supplies, and they have no plans to deal with such a disaster. The other person has extra food, water, medical supplies, tools, and is disaster ready.

Now, who would you rather be?

Of course, everyone would choose the latter. Nobody wants to be in a bad situation with zero supplies or no clue as to what to do.

Now imagine the mental state of those two people. The person who has supplies and disaster plans is certainly going to have some stress and worries. But that stress is not going to be anywhere near that of the unprepared person.

By being prepared with supplies, knowledge, and skills, we are also preparing ourselves mentally for a time of emergency.

2. Practice Scenarios To Up Your Mental Game

chess competition

Do you know what you would do if you got a flat tire? I am sure some people know how to change the tire themselves while others would call a friend or service to help them out.

The point here is that everyone who drives a vehicle has planned for this eventuality and has played this scenario out in their heads.   

Wouldn’t it be just as beneficial to play out other emergency scenarios in your head? What would you do if there was a house fire, a tornado, a breakdown of society, or you were lost in the woods?

Close your eyes and visualize yourself in one of those events. Think about what you would see, smell, hear, and touch. Think about how you would cope with those experiences and plan for them. The more you are mentally ready and aware of what to expect in an emergency, the less likely it is that you will be shocked when it occurs.

Often, the unknown affects our mental game the most.

3. Use S.T.O.P.

Often when an emergency happens, people automatically react to the situation. And many times, that is what needs to be done – especially if there is an immediate threat to life.

But if there is not an immediate threat to life, then you can use the acronym STOP to help focus.

Stop, calm down, and analyze the situation you are in.

Think about what needs to be done to survive and to get out of the situation.

Observe what is around you in terms of resources, landmarks, dangers, and exit points.  

Plan your next move. The plan does not have to be detailed with a lot of moves. It can be as simple as moving one hundred yards and reassessing.

Some people extend this by adding the letter A to the end to form S.T.O.P.A.

The A stands for Act. After you have made a plan, it’s time to act on it.

4. Grounding Technique

Some people who find themselves in an emergency or survival situation may experience an increase in anxiety. Unchecked anxiety can lead to panic attacks. Both are detrimental to a person’s ability to focus and accomplish what needs to be done.

If you find yourself in a state of anxiety you can utilize a technique called grounding. The goal of grounding is to help a person focus more on external things rather than the anxiety within and thus aid in reducing it. Practicing grounding can also help you mentally prepare for a big event.

There are several different grounding techniques, and everyone uses them a bit differently, but here is a common one that seems to be used a lot:

It is called the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 technique.

5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Technique

The idea is quite simple. Pick 5 things that you can see, 4 things that you can smell, 3 things that you can hear, 2 things that you can touch, and one thing that you can taste.

Of course, the order can be switched around as you like. Instead of 5 things you can see, pick 5 things you can touch, and so on. Repeat the process as much as necessary.

This exercise forces a person to use their five senses in hopes of realigning them with their surroundings so that they can focus outwardly rather than on the internal anxiety.

5. Breathing

Knowing how to breathe and being in control of your breathing helps a person to slow down, calm down, and focus.

When doing this, close your eyes and breathe slowly and deeply in through the nose. Once your lungs are full, blow the air out through your mouth. Concentrate on bringing the air in and slowly pushing it out.

Repeat this several times until you have calmed down enough to analyze the situation.

6. Think Positive, Stay Positive

practice positive self talk

This may sound cliché, but positive thinking really can change the outcome of a bad situation. If a person is in a negative mindset all the time, they will not be able to see certain possibilities that could otherwise help them. In this case, your well being is determined by how you think.

They will also be less willing to help themselves because negative thinking can lead to the mindset of “what’s the point?”

But there are successes in failure. Or, maybe a better way to say that is to do your best to turn a negative into a positive. Making mistakes is a part of the game, but how you choose to focus on those mistakes is key.

Let’s use an outdoor survival situation as an example. Imagine a person that has to move through extremely rugged terrain and they move one hundred yards in one hour.

A person with a negative mindset will look at the situation and say, “I only moved one hundred yards in an hour.” This leaves a person feeling dismayed, frustrated, and not as willing to continue.

A person with a positive mindset will look at the situation and say, “Wow, I can’t believe I moved one hundred yards in an hour.” This leaves the person feeling good because they accomplished something. Therefore, they are more willing to take steps in the right direction.  

Wrap Up

As I mentioned early in the article, being strong mentally is probably one of the most important characteristics to cultivate in ourselves.

Our mind governs everything, so if we don’t have self-confidence, how can we expect ourselves to handle anything else? Remember, the mind is like any other muscle – the more we use it and practice with it, the stronger we will be.

Thanks for reading, and stay prepared – in all aspects of the word!

Bryan Lynch

Bryan grew up in the Midwest and spent every waking moment outdoors. Learning how to hunt, fish, read the land, and be self-reliant was part of everyday life. Eventually, he combined his passions for the outdoors, emergency preparedness, and writing. His goal was to spread positive information about this field. In 2019, Bryan authored the book Swiss Army Knife Camping and Outdoor Survival Guide. His second book, Paracord Projects For Camping and Outdoor Survival, is scheduled to be released on March 2, 2021.