I recently read Ben Sherwood’s The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life. It wasn’t terrible, and the style is lively, but I can’t recommend it; it’s a significantly less-good variation on what I think is the gold standard for books exploring how and why people live and die in extreme circumstances, Laurence Gonzales’ Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. (Avoid Gonzales’ Everyday Survival. It’s terrible.)

The Survivor’s Club starts off well, then devolves into a mess of dubious studies, shallow analysis, and lengthy claims that since most people who survive extreme danger felt that faith in God got them through, then you need to have faith in God to survive. Most people believe in God, and many believers feel that faith gets them through hard times in general. Of course most survivors applied the tools they already had. But to say those tools should be acquired or would be useful to people using different tools is ludicrous. By that reasoning, most people have two ears, so most of his survivors have two ears, so you need two ears to survive a shipwreck. Faith undoubtedly does help believers survive, but that doesn’t mean that non-believers would do better if they had faith. It means that non-believers use different tools.

That’s the example that annoyed me the most, but as I read, I frequently found myself muttering, “Was this study ever replicated?” and “Correlation is not causation!” and “If this study was disproved, why did you devote so much time to it?”

But it did make me notice that there are a couple of aspects to survival that none of the books on it I’ve read have addressed, or addressed in detail. Probably because those aspects are insufficiently macho.

But first, let me explain what I mean by “survival.” I don’t mean to guilt people who die. We all die. And I especially don’t mean to guilt people who lived through traumatic, dangerous, or horrendous times, but feel that they weren’t tough enough, brave enough, enough of a survivor – that emotional survival means coming through stronger than ever, undamaged, or bent but not broken.

First of all, survival is literal. You walk away from a flaming car crash, you survived, whether or not your actions made that possible. Secondly, survival is emotional. By that I do mean living through awful things, and eventually coming to a place where you’re glad you’re alive. But there’s no deadline for either of those. As long as you literally survive, you have time to emotionally survive.

Since I made it through a horrendous childhood, twenty years of major depression and PTSD, two flaming car wrecks, one non-flaming car wreck followed by four years of physical therapy, and a number of encounters with people who were physically menacing me, I think I’m well-qualified to discuss my own survival.

My tips may not work for you, since you are not me. But I offer them on the theory that at least some will be relevant for some people.

Failure IS an option

There is a very unrealistic belief that if you completely fall apart emotionally and become a sobbing wreck, you have failed to survive and will forever stay in that state. This is not true at all.

The single most helpful belief you can have is not “I can get through anything in one piece,” but rather, “If I do fall apart, I can put myself back together again.” You don’t have to be unbreakable, or believe that you are. You just have to believe that whatever happens, as long as you still live, you can eventually recover from it.

It’s also helpful, if this isn’t too recursive, to believe that this is possible even if you don’t, at that moment, believe that it’s possible. This is particularly relevant if the thing you’re trying to survive is mental illness.

Fear is not the enemy

I’m not just talking about The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals that Protect Us From Violence here, though that’s true too. I mean that trying not to be afraid is a waste of time and energy. Fear is information. It may be information about the outside world, in which case it’s worth paying attention to. It may be the information that your brain is sending you inappropriate signals of anxiety or panic. It’s important to register the fear, analyze which it is, and then proceed appropriately. Just being able to say to yourself, “I know that I’m afraid, but I’m going to do this anyway” is often sufficient to force yourself into action.

Fears that you should pay special attention to: admitting or acknowledging that something is wrong, making a fuss about something everyone else is ignoring, overreacting/being hysterical in public, and being mean/acting crazy.

If you feel yourself having those fears, consider that they may be signals that something is very, very wrong, that everyone else is in denial, and/or that the person you feel guilty or stupid for being scared of is genuinely menacing you.

You don’t have to react instantly

There are very few situations in which freezing momentarily will get you killed. (And if you do get into one of them, it’s very likely so extreme that you wouldn’t have made it out anyway.) If you’re aware in advance that freezing is a natural human instinct, you will hopefully notice when you’re frozen. You can then take a moment to take stock of the situation and decide upon a plan of action. (A very, very simple one!) If you can do that, by the time you’ve decided, you should be able to move.

Also, time feels like it’s moving slowly in an emergency. Don’t panic because it feels like you were frozen for hours. It’s probably only been a few seconds.

You don't have to be a Navy SEAL

If you're an ordinary person, and you encounter a situation in which you would need special training or great strength to survive, honestly, it's probably bad enough that whether you survive or not is purely up to luck anyway. The strongest guy in the world can still get squashed by a cement truck.

But for the situations ordinary people are likely to encounter, you need the qualities you already have or can acquire if you decide to work on getting them. Everyone has some degree of endurance, courage, intelligence, and common sense. And everyone can acquire the ability to cut through denial that something is wrong, the willingness to look foolish in public, and the belief that recovery is possible.


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