‘You cannot sit on the fence, you have to commit and act’

We talk to Megan Hine about her book Mind of a Survivor, and what wilderness survival might tell us about coping and self-reliance.

Can you tell me a little bit about your book?
Mind of a Survivor is an exploration into resilience. Through my own experiences of personal survival scenarios and those I have helped develop for TV shows, and the wilderness survival stories of everyday people who have survived against all odds, I look at what I believe make up some of the components of resilience. One of the questions I wanted to explore is whether lessons in resilience learnt in the wilderness can transfer into everyday life. And if so, how might this be possible. I believe that resilience can be learnt or developed to some extent if you dedicate time to working on the traits that I believe contribute to making someone a survivor and thus resilient.

What motivated you to write this book?
When instructing and guiding in wilderness places, I saw over and over the almost spiritual-like reactions people would have from being in the wilderness and being part of a temporary community, and I wanted to know why this happened and explore the health benefits to the mind when in the wilderness. Mind of a Survivor is my interpretation of what makes a survivor through my own experiences and those of the people I have worked with. I look at some of the coping mechanisms that I have developed for working in highly pressured environments, I am aware some may not be healthy long-term. I am intrigued from the theoretical perspective what the psychologist community makes of this about why people react in certain ways or seemingly cope better than others.

Having worked extensively with native peoples who still maintain much of their hunter-gatherer lifestyles, I started believing that the way we live as Westerners is not particularly healthy for the mind. I do not believe we have evolved to live in the modern world. The primal, animalistic part of our brains holds us back. Stress has slowly crept into our lives and has become for many of us a chronic situation. I have seen particularly in the past five years an increase of young people and adults I work with on expeditions taking medication for anxiety and depression, and this raised the question, Has the medical profession become better at diagnosing mental health issues or are mental health issues on the increase?

I am not a medical practitioner so this is not in my power to give a professional opinion; however, with everyday life for many of us being so structured, there is little room for creativity or initiative. In tribal situations time is taken up with pure survival. Tribes people must meet the basic requirements of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs on a daily basis. When I am carrying out pure survival trips there is little room for emotions to take over, you are driven to collect water, food, find shelter this is all-consuming, very animalistic and takes initiative to overcome problems. I have also found that it is not really about positive or negative thoughts, it is about the basic fundamentals of ‘do or die’. Trying to be positive just doesn’t really come into it, you are so focused on surviving, yes you hold on to hope, but active positive thinking takes energy you don’t have to spare. In the Western world we rarely have to fight for the very food we eat and most of us have shelter over our heads. Have we created ourselves too much time to allow stress in?
 
What do you think the relevance of Mind of a Survivor is to the discipline of psychology?
Mind of a Survivor explores first-hand the positive benefits to mental health of people participating in outdoor activities. How nature provides an escape from everyday stresses, a place to be able to find perspective and to figure what is important in life. Spending time in nature, even if it is just sitting in a park on your lunch break, is beneficial to mental health. Mind of a Survivor is based on real-life situations and is a practical analysis of how I or others reacted to a certain situation.

I have seen what happens when the fragile rules that hold our society together crumble. I have seen the beauty, but I have also seen the ‘dark’ side of humanity, where people revert to pure animalistic behaviour. It is so rare to see people stripped of all their creature comforts and safety nets and hard to replicate unless actually doing. These are raw experiences which show results.

I spent the second year of my degree in Outdoor Studies at Charles University in Prague. The modules I took there were the psychology and philosophy of why people go into the outdoors. That is what really got me thinking that maybe my views weren’t that crazy. I am interested in the work of Al Seibert and have also read Laurence Gonzales’ Deep Survival and various research papers by outdoor professionals on the subject of wilderness therapy. With the political state of the world at the moment I think this topic could be rather relevant in terms of being prepared for the unexpected.

Why might psychologists  – for example, those involve in therapy or those conducting research in the area of resilience, fear, decision making or social psychology – be interested in reading Mind of a Survivor?
I find that when talking to people about why they are anxious or stressed they often don’t know. They are either experiencing an overload from lots of different sources or they cannot pinpoint where the overwhelming emotions are coming from. They cannot see a way to deal with these emotions. Stand someone on top of a cliff and ask them to jump off into the water below and almost everyone could relate to the associated emotions. It is obvious that the fear comes from exposure, new experience, height and fear of injury or worse. If someone can learn to deal with these emotions logically in this setting, I believe the skills are transferable to everyday life. The wilderness also boosts confidence in decision-making, you have to make decisions, even if you are being guided; you cannot sit on the fence, you have to commit and act and face the consequences of your decisions; and if it was the wrong choice, sort it out. You learn self-reliance and become stronger in the face of adversity.
 
Finally, you might be interested in an article we published by Sarita Robinson and Nikola Bridges on the psychology and physiology behind staying alive (see tinyurl.com/henenpf). Feel free to share your thoughts on it with us.
This article is fascinating! The exploration chemically into what is potentially going on within the brain of survivors during and after a survival scenario is incredibly exciting stuff. The fact that a survivor may go to pieces after handling a traumatic experience is not a surprise and is something I have experienced myself personally and seen in others. I think it shows how strong the mind can be that for some people the mind can find the inner strength to keep going through a traumatic experience for days, weeks, months, even years, yet once safe apparently shuts down. I would love to be able to understand this more. Is it a protection mechanism? Is it the brain seeking a way to shut down to allow itself to process and recover or has it become overloaded or lost it’s focus and doesn’t know what to do with itself? I wonder if this could lead to predicting those that may be more prone to PTSD, and through this finding a way to better train resilience into, for example, frontline soldiers. Through my own experiences I believe resilience can be learnt to some extent when dealing with everyday stress, but what I am unsure of yet is how transferable resilience is from one scenario to another.

I also find the fact that some people fail to react or act in a life-threatening situation interesting. Out of interest, I occasionally watch Twitter when shows like The Island are on. It is amazing how many people comment negatively towards the participants in terms of behaviour of the ‘survivors’ and how they could do better if they were on the show. It is one thing sitting comfortably in your armchair believing you could make it through the hardships of struggling to meet the basic priorities of survival, it is a whole other thing when you are actually out there faced with hunger, lack of sleep and having to deal with the personalities you have found yourself with. You cannot predict how you will respond to a scenario until you are in it. This is what I wanted to look at in Mind of a Survivor – Why is this? Why do a few people leap into action and seemingly thrive during the scenario whilst others sit down and wait to ‘die’?

- Photo: Ben Simms

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