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

Negative Psychological Reactions

When you realize you're lost, resist the urge to panic.
When you realize you're lost, resist the urge to panic.
Michael Blann/Getty Images

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.