How does your brain impact your survival chances in the wilderness?

By: Cristen Conger  | 
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Key Takeaways
  • In survival situations, the stress response can be beneficial, temporarily boosting heart rate and energy levels.
  • While moderate stress enhances performance and survival capabilities, excessive or prolonged stress can lead to a decline in mental and physical health.
  • The key to leveraging stress positively in survival situations involves managing stress levels to avoid the negative long-term effects.

Bear Grylls, of Discovery Channel's "Man vs. Wild," would likely have an easier time surviving in the wilderness than the average Joe. Grylls has years of survival training experience under his belt and makes his living getting lost on purpose. But for all of Grylls' expertise, there's one thing he has in common with everyone else heading into the wilderness -- a brain.

Out of all the factors related to wilderness endurance, your brain can most impact your chances of survival in the wild. When people's minds become overwhelmed with the task of staying alive, they can fail at doing just that.


For that reason, many wilderness books acknowledge that the brain is your make-or-break tool in survival situations. It stores concrete knowledge of any outdoorsman skills -- how to spark a fire from sticks, how to build a shelter in deep snow. And the brain also provides those intangible skills -- intuition and judgment that govern your decisions to stay put or move on, to make that fire here and build that shelter there and so on.

It sounds like a simple recipe for survival success: preparation plus gut feeling. However, the rest of the body twists the story of whether we survive. The extreme stress of trying to stay alive in the wilderness can either sweeten or sour our chances of living, thanks to its physical and mental effects.

To temper this unconscious reaction to extreme stress, survival experts emphasize the importance of a positive mental attitude (PMA). Without it, stress wears down our bodies and brains quickly, and any prior wilderness survival knowledge will fly out the window. In this sense, survival becomes a balancing act between unconscious and conscious impulses in our brains.

Where do stress and attitude meet in the middle? Since stress is inevitable, can thinking good thoughts magically send you home in the same way that Dorothy clicked her ruby slippers home in "The Wizard of Oz"?

Read the next page to learn how stress helps and hurts you when you're striving to survive in the wilderness.


Negative Psychological Reactions

When you realize you're lost, resist the urge to panic.
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Getting lost can be an incredibly frightening and unnerving experience. Studies have shown that people universally become agitated and upset on some level when they lose their way. This type of psychological stress goes hand in hand with wilderness survival.

You can think of your stress response in the wilderness like a stove. When turned on, it gets things cooking, but too much too fast will burn. When you realize you've entered into a survival situation, resist panic and take a few minutes to plan. If your stress level doesn't overheat, so to speak, it can actually help you.


Although stress usually gets a bad rap, it can produce positive results for the short term. Once our brains recognize that we face a threatening circumstance, the hypothalamus goes to work, producing our fight-or-flight response. The hypothalamus sits in the mid-region of the brain base and, among its other job titles, is regulator of hormone secretion. It triggers the adrenal glands to release hormones including adrenaline and cortisol.

Adrenaline boosts your heart rate and blood pressure, causes the liver to release stored energy in the form of glucose and sends blood to your large muscle groups. Cortisol tempers the bodily functions that aren't necessary when you're in a serious bind, such as digestion and growth. During fight-or-flight situations, your pupils dilate, and your visual scope focuses in, decreasing the number of things you notice. It impairs fine and complex motor skills as well, giving more energy to larger movement, such as lifting or running.

For brief periods of time, these hormones can send us into "Incredible Hulk" mode. In survival situations, our unconscious stress response can prod us to eliminate the immediate threats to our safety by building shelter, making fire and evading wild animals. In fact, people actually function at peak performance under the right amount of stress because of these physiological effects.

But the stress-performance gradient looks like an arch. That means that while humans work well under stress, too much sends us sliding down a slippery slope that can end in a mental and physical freeze-up. Because of this balance, the long-term effects of stress could be more threatening to your survival than any grizzly.

Continual release of stress hormones leaves you physically and mentally exhausted when you should be conserving energy. After the initial stress eases, your parasympathetic nervous system kicks back in to regulate those functions that the cortisol constricted. This entire process saps your strength, especially when it happens over and over again. Prolonged cortisol exposure can also promote depression. Once your mental state deteriorates, so goes your will to live. In some life or death survival conditions, that determination can save you.

Next up, we'll look at what happens in our brains when we turn that frown upside down, and why survival experts preach the word of positive mental attitude.


Positive Mental Attitude

In survival situations, positive mental attitude can make the difference to get you back to civilization.
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The benefits of maintaining a good attitude in the wilderness seem implicit. Daily experiences have taught us that mood influences outcomes. But just how does this "Pollyanna principle" affect your brain in survival situations?

A little positivity goes a long way when you're calling a handmade hovel miles from civilization "home." While it may sound like a page ripped from a self-help book, positive mental attitude (PMA) is an integral part of survival.


In general terms, PMA combats your unconscious stress, allowing you to think more clearly and make better decisions. For example, remember how the fight-or-flight response limits the amount of things you observe around you? By improving your attitude and, consequently, lowering your stress, you reinvigorate your awareness of your surroundings. Imagine how vital that would be when sharing habitats with unfriendly neighbors.

But how can you think positively when you're in such a jam? Among the many tips offered, here are some from survival handbooks:

  • Stay busy to keep your mind occupied.
  • Repeat to yourself affirming statements about surviving.
  • Recognize your negative emotions and address them.
  • Do not blame yourself for getting into the situation.

Now we know that looking at the glass half full can increase our chances of survival, but how exactly does that happen? Why can positive thoughts breed positive results?

The study of positive psychology that analyses the effect of positive thinking and emotions on people sprang up a relatively short time ago. Research revealed a link between positive thinking and emotions and successful survival. That's because it opens up global thinking capacities in the brain, allowing for more innovation and creativity. In the wilderness, once your initial needs are met, you will require new ideas and prioritization of tasks to keep yourself alive for the longer term.

Physiologically, PMA reverses the toll of stress on our bodies. Think about your body language when you watch a funny movie. You're often more relaxed than when you see a nail-biting thriller. This loosening up will help you conserve precious energy. Proper wilderness preparation and training also contributes to positive thinking because you will better know how to fend for yourself. That, coupled with PMA, can help you cross the bridge to survival.

Want to learn more tips on surviving in the wilderness? Cruise to the links on the next page.


Frequently Asked Questions

How can you train your brain for better survival responses in stressful situations?
Training your brain for better survival responses involves practicing mindfulness and stress management techniques, engaging in regular physical activity to enhance your body's stress tolerance and learning survival skills to boost confidence and competence in wilderness situations. Mental simulations of survival scenarios can also help prepare your brain to respond more effectively under stress.
What is the role of positive mental attitude (PMA) in survival psychology?
A Positive Mental Attitude (PMA) helps to maintain motivation and resilience in challenging situations, ultimately improving chances of survival in the wilderness.

Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Cooper, Donald. "Fundamentals of Search and Rescue." 2005. Jones & Bartlett Publishers. (April 10, 2008)
  • Fredrickson, Barbara L. "The Value of Positive Emotions." 2003. American Scientist. (April 10, 2008)
  • Hill, Kenneth. "The Psychology of Lost." Lost Person Behavior. 1998. St. Mary's University. (April 9, 2008)
  • Lundin, Cody. "98.6 Degrees: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive." 2003. Gibbs Smith. (April 10, 2008)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Stress: Unhealthy response to the pressures of life." Sept. 12, 2006. (April 10, 2008)
  • McNab, Chris. "The SAS Mental Endurance Handbook." Globe Pequot. 2002. (April 9, 2008)
  • Snyder, C.R. and Lopez, Shane J. "Handbook of Positive Psychology." 2002. Oxford University Press US. (April 10, 2008)
  • Stilwell, Alexander. "The Encyclopedia of Survival Techniques." 2000. The Lyons Press.