Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What we can learn from survivors………and Survivor!

I’ve discussed the entire process now of how to catch the old, automatic thoughts that lead to stress, anxiety, depression, anger, and self-doubt and how to change those thoughts in a manner that produces more positive emotions and pervasive happiness and peace. It is intuitively obvious that the messages we constantly attach to situations will result, over time, in chronic feelings that mirror this self-talk, and I wanted to press on the importance of this self-talk by discussing the impact it has on how successful people are in coping with extreme survival situations. And if changing our self-talk is beneficial in getting through life or death situations, it can definitely help us to manage the situations we get hit with in our typical lives.

Most survival experts that I’ve heard discussing the keys to making it through a survival situation such as being lost in the wilderness, always state that the mental aspects of surviving often outweigh everything else. Nando Parrado discussed this in his book Miracle in the Andes about the Uruguayan rugby players whose plane crashed in the Andes Mountains. They were there for over 60 days and search efforts had long ceased by the time he and a teammate made it down and got help for the remaining survivors. Not everyone who survived the initial crash lasted the two months, and Parrado felt that those that did make it had been able to maintain hope, minimize discouragement, and keep a calmer attitude and mind.

POWs often say similar things in terms of the importance of not letting negative thoughts take root and using constant encouraging and reassuring self-talk to help maintain hope. Victor Frankl, who survived Nazi death camps, hit the nail on the head when he said, “Everything can be taken from a person, but the last of the human freedoms--- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances.” This statement is so true; we always have control of what we think, even in the most difficult of circumstances.

A compilation of research on the mental aspects of survival by the Discovery Channel also pointed to similar mental characteristics in wilderness survivors. The research demonstrated the importance of repeating to yourself affirming statements about surviving, recognizing your negative emotions and addressing them before they took hold, and not blaming yourself for getting into the situation.

There’s no comparison between participants on the television show Survivor and the true survivors in the preceding examples, but it is still incredibly interesting and exemplary to hear the self-talk of different individuals on this show and to see in a matter of days the impact that these thoughts may have on their well-being and overall coping with the lack of food, little sleep, and sometimes cold, persistent rain. During a recent season of the show, all the people were experiencing the exact same conditions, the same lack of food and sleep, and the constant cold rain, but the self-talk and resultant appearance of two contestants was striking in contrast.

One initially strong and athletic appearing individual was invariably seen slumping over, head hanging down, and looking miserable and discouraged. When interviewed, he typically said things like, “ This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done; This is so miserable; I’m so cold and hungry; I don’t know if I’m going to make it.” And he sure looked like he might not make it. In contrast, another contestant stood out in the rain, arms crossed defiantly, chin in the air, and said, “This is nothing; This just makes me stronger; I wanted it to be just like this……I didn’t want some resort that I could take my family to on vacation.” And he looked like he would have survived out there forever!

What an enormous difference the encouraging, calming, realistic self-talk can make with participants on Survivor and with true survivors! And then consider again the situations we are getting hit with in our own lives…….probably not life or death survival situations, but definitely times when things initially feel incredibly stressful and overwhelming and we might doubt our ability to manage everything. But we can learn from survivors. We can always choose the attitude of encouragement and reassurance in any situation and not allow the negative emotions to take hold, we can always give ourselves affirming statements about getting through the life challenges, and we can probably even stick our chins defiantly in the air and say, “this just makes me stronger!”

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