The Will to Survive anything

Why do I need the Will to Survive?

I have touched on the physical things that will keep you alive using the PLWF principle. Whilst this is key to keeping your body physically functioning they are useless if you have no will to survive. If harnessed and used correctly, the will to survive is powerful and will allow humans to do what is sometimes deemed impossible.

There are examples of people lasting 9 days without water in the Sahara Desert, swimming for 6 hours in the frigid waters off of Iceland with no protection or the particularly gnarly bloke who cut his own trapped arm off with a multi-tool when trapped by a bolder in a canyon, respect!

The common factor all of those people had was a Will to Survive. I cannot overstate just how important to your survival it is to have the tenacity and stubbornness that means you will not give up, no matter what. History is littered with people who were in a relatively good position in terms of PLWF and died, sometimes with no real reason. This is what happens when someone does NOT have the will to survive. I will be looking at some of these stories in the future as they are truly remarkable and show just what is possible when you refuse to accept your fate.

How does the brain give me the will to survive?

will to survive frontal lobeIn very simple terms, the Frontal Lobe of the brain controls your reasoning, it does this day-to-day without you even realising it. Everything that you see when you go about your day is ‘normal’ and as such this part of the brain is doing a lot of work and does not need a will to survive as everything is bunny rabbits and lemonade.

When something is not ‘normal’ and by this I don’t mean a man running down the street naked. I mean a threat to your life such as a plane crash, witnessing a mass shooting or a bomb detonation; this causes your Frontal Lobe to shut down and unreasonable behaviours to happen. The key to survival and not doing something dumb or dangerous is to get control of your Frontal Lobe as soon as possible. Easier said than done!

If you don’t re-activate this part of the brain you are likely to spiral downwards and either accept your fate and die a slow death due to not having a will to survive. The other option is to do something stupid that causes a very quick death. If you manage to survive it is a lot more likely that you will have long term psychological problems.

“The mind is everything, what you think, you become” – Buddha

It is this shutting down and accepting your fate and not having the will to survive that can cause a rapid and startling deterioration and ultimately death. If you can engage your Frontal Lobe again, you are likely to accept your situation but not your fate; this is where the will to survive against phenomenal odds comes from.

What happens to your brain in a survival situation?

I am going to look at the 3 main phases of survival psychology and how to deal with each to ensure you have the best chance of survival and what will help with the will to survive. These phases are –

  • Impact period (or Shock of Capture as we call it in the military)
  • Recoil Period
  • Post Trauma Period

Impact period

This occurs within 1 – 60 minutes of a situation that is not normal and out of context i.e. A plane crash, boat capsizing, vehicle rolling, bear attack etc.

10 -15% of people in this situation will act with rational thought or be aware of the situation. These small group of people normally have some kind of training (mental preparation); it is very unusual for someone to have this built in ability without some kind of training.

no will to survive

Frozen to the spot

75% will be shocked, bewildered and will freeze, this is a perfectly normal human reaction and is what those without training will normally do. It is not uncommon for this group of people to be rooted to the spot with mouth open just watching things unfold, they are literally frozen with fear.

10 – 15 % will act inappropriately i.e. will get hysterical, will run around, faint, get aggressive, sit down and accept their fate etc. This is normally someone who feels they have completely lost control of the situation and are overwhelmed by what they have witnessed and don’t know how to react. These people can have a marked effect on others and can cause a bad situation to become even worse.

‘Yeah, but I am hard as nails, nothing scares me…’

I want to emphasise that whatever the situation individuals face, it is what is abnormal to them that will cause the reaction and it wont necessarily affect everyone. Sometimes it is the most vocal person prior to the event that has the most aggressive/unusual reaction.

A good example is watching my mother scream as if her leg was being cut off with a rusty spoon when she sees a spider! I cannot understand the logic of why she is scared of something that weighs 0.00001% of her own body weight and that she can squash easily. As much as I cant get my head around it, it is my mothers very real fear.

Likewise I have seen some real life GI Joe tough men faint at the sight of a needle… A person’s perception is their reality.

Will to survive plane crash

This applies to everything that happens when surviving; understanding this will help you to help others and get through a survival situation whereby everyone’s chances of survival improve. During this period those who have been frozen with fear are likely to follow commands of anyone who is authoritative and assertive, whether this is good or bad!

This is why flight attendants are taught in the event of a crash to shout at the top of their voices at the same time “UNSTRAP AND GET OUT, UNSTRAP AND GET OUT!!!” The only voice panicked passengers will hear is someone in authority telling them to unstrap and get out; it’s beautiful in its simplicity.

Recoil Period

This is the aftermath and usually lasts around 3 – 72 hours and is signalled by those involved slowly returning to some form of awareness of the situation. Once this phase starts individuals will start to have some form of cognitive function. They may start to express emotions such as denial, disbelief and “I cant believe this is happening to me”.

A key recognition point is adults having a very infantile dependency on each other and will want to be in groups; it is rare for individuals to want to be isolated. When in these groups shared experiences will be spoken about and there is a danger of ‘Group Think’ taking hold and should be guarded against. At some point in this period is when action to address the situation will be taken i.e. trying to make a shelter, treating the injured, coming up with a plan etc.

Post Trauma Period

If during the Recoil Period a suitable resolution of the situation isn’t found then psychiatric disorders can result; this could be straight away or years down the line. These disorders can include but are certainly not limited to –

  • Panic attacks
  • Guilt
  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Bereavement
  • Aimlessness
  • A feeling of hopelessness
  • Fear
  • Lack of emotion
  • Unable to be around others
  • Short temper

These manifestations broadly come under the ‘catch-all’ of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and can take years to deal with; some people never get a suitable coping strategy. This is something that is normal and should not have any stigma attached to it. The sooner an individual gets help when they recognise these symptoms the better the likely outcome is.

PTSDAnd just to clarify, developing PTSD is not a result of being weak; it is a complex illness with numerous triggers and reasons. I have had friends who have developed it and have been discharged from the military as a result. The reasons have normally centred around guilt at surviving after a traumatic event such as an IED explosion when personnel under their charge have died.

An irrational belief that they could have done more; that they didn’t do their job as a leader by protecting their men causes the spiral descent into PTSD. I have seen some true legends and ‘strong’ leaders being reduced to shadows of their former self. PTSD is a brutal and complicated illness that requires patience and understanding.

So what can you do to help the Will to Survive?

Ultimately you can’t change this overnight and it is broadly something you have or you don’t… However, there are several things that you can do that can help you to cope with disaster better. Doing this will hopefully then allow more of the odds of survival being stacked in your favour and prevent you being in the 75% group or worse still the irrational group.

Tasks that require reasoning require around 10 seconds for your brain to process; it takes 2 – 4 seconds for your brain to process something that does not require reasoning. In simple terms –

  • Reasoning = Action (Good)
  • No reasoning = Reaction (Bad… Or is it?)

Practice makes perfectThe easiest and most effective method of ensuring you stack the odds in your favour is to prepare beforehand. The ideal situation is to ensure you move away from reacting and move towards action. That is not the full story though as you can train your body to react with a well drilled action and bypass the Frontal Lobe when it shuts down.

To see this in action watch soldiers on a battlefield or clearing buildings of enemy fighters. Every part of what they are doing is unreasonable, they are literally running into the jaws of death. Despite this, they remain calm, focused and deliberate in their actions; this is because they have converted their action (reasoning) into reaction (no reasoning) such that it becomes second nature. This is what preparation does if done correctly.

  • Training = knowledge = realistic expectations = Removes fear of unknown = high will to survive
  • Practice = knowledge = action =over time = reaction = reasonable actions = high will to survive

Preparing for the ‘What if’…

In the military we call is ‘Red Teaming‘. This is basically playing devils advocate and thinking about the ‘What if’ of your scenario. This doesn’t have to be a complicated process and generally can be done from the comfort of your sofa with a beer in hand.Team red


Understand, anticipate and adapt.

I will put together a post in the future on ‘Red Teaming’ with a lot more detail, however to give you a broad understanding and a place to start use the following headings.

      • Understand
      • Anticipate
      • Adapt

You have to Understand what your current situation is and what the problem is that you want to Red Team. You have to then think outside the box about what you can reasonably Anticipate could go wrong; I generally go for the nuclear option first and work back from there. Once you Understand your situation and you have anticipated problems you have to find a way to Adapt to that problem.Plan plan planThe devil is in the detail here, you have to think through exactly what you would do. It is no good giving a one word answer; you have to think it through to the finish. a quick example. You crash into the trees in a light aircraft, you have a broken leg and are suspended 30′ up a tree. It is no good saying you have to get down to the ground, that isn’t preparation.

To Red Team you have to look deeper.

      • Do I have any rope on my person
      • Can I actually use the rope
      • What can I attach the rope to
      • Can I tie knots that are suitable
      • Will the rope be long enough
      • Do I have gloves to prevent burning my hands on the way down
      • What if my arm is broken
      • What if the rope is thrown from the aircraft during the crash
      • What else is available
      • What if the plane is on fire
      • What if I am trapped
      • What if I am upside down
      • What if my sight is affected
      • What if I do nothing and await rescue
      • What location aids will work
      • What locations aids are carried by the aircraft

As I said, the devil is in the detail and you have to think about the ‘So what’ of every action and keep digging down until you can get a solution. Oh, and there is almost ALWAYS a solution 🙂

If you go through this in detail for every scenario you are likely to find yourself in, then you will be a lot better placed to cope should it happen and it will improve your Will to survive through knowledge and practice.

I will leave you with this –

If you think you are beaten, you are;
If you think you dare not, you don’t.
If you’d like to win, but think you can’t
It’s almost a cinch you won’t.
If you think you’ll lose, you’ve lost,
For out in the world we find
Success being with a fellow’s will;
It’s all in the state of mind.

If you think you’re outclassed, you are:
You’ve got to think high to rise.
You’ve got to be sure of yourself before
You can ever win a prize.
Life’s battles don’t always go
To the stronger or faster man,
But soon or late the man who wins
Is the one who thinks he can.

I have got some great information on my other posts; check them out!

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  • Hey Cwodavids!
    I think each and everyone should read your website! in case anyone happened to be in any critical situation and need survival tips!
    nice work!


  • This was a good read. I like your ideas about what to write. I focus on my website on a more entertainment theme, but I’m sure there are people who enjoy this more than the television. 🙂

    • Thanks for the comment, I always appreciate feedback, good or bad. And I can vouch that there are people who love survival training more than TV… I am one of those guys, ha ha.

  • PJ

    Hi, there Dave,
    I really appreciate the clear reality you give here. It is the training that counts so much in the details of survival and i reading this very informative piece , wow, it just makes me think more about the WHAT IFS.. I live in that what if world and so many just pass on by… I worry… But, worry wont help much, whereas training and preparing will. Hands down. Hone the skills. We will NOT survive by accident… Thanks pJ

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