Sea Survival: Psychology of Survival

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There are ample stories and texts available analyzing the facts and fiction of what it is like and what it takes to be a survivor. There are also detailed accounts written by actual survivors that focus specifically on the psychological aspects of the survival state. This section, while it is by no means a complete study in survival psychology, will familiarize you with the most common dilemmas and responses the castaway may experience.


Man’s ability to adapt, both physically and mentally, to adverse conditions will ultimately determine his outcome in a survival ordeal. History is full of examples of survival adaptation and fortitude that by “normal standards” would seem miraculous. History has also shown that physical prowess and strength are not necessarily prerequisites for survival. In survival conditions, mental attitudes play a far greater role in determining the outcome than many other factors.

Positive attitude is probably the most important factor in how to survive. A positive attitude is attainable even in the most bleak of circumstances. The continuous reaffirmation of a positive outlook is something that you can cultivate within yourself. It will ultimately contribute to your ability to adapt, and thus survive.

Endurance also comes from within and is an intrinsic part of the human will to live. Fortified by a positive attitude, endurance is the solid foundation for what must be present to withstand seemingly insurmountable odds.

People tend to limit themselves to do only what they think they can do. To survive you must accomplish tasks that are necessary for your survival even though they may seem beyond your limits. An open psychological attitude will help you overcome your own preconceived limits. It will also provide the psychological foundation necessary to see you through the duration of a survival ordeal.


An individual’s response to catastrophe is difficult to anticipate. Man’s primitive instincts are often reflected in his initial response to a threatening situation. The “every man for himself” attitude, for example, is typical of this type of basic instinct. It is usually triggered by a state of panic. Although this selfish survival instinct may seem abhorrent in action, it is nevertheless a natural aspect of human behavior. Remember also that, just as the “selfish” side of a person may surface in perilous conditions, so too may the valiant, sacrificing qualities of an individual.

The best approach to avoiding panic is to make sure that each crew member has been thoroughly drilled on emergency procedures beforehand, and has been given a specific role or job to carry out. This will direct the initial reactions away from panic and toward more constructive action.


Before the shock of isolation and despair settles on the crew of a life raft, quick and decisive action is necessary. Positive action and the delegation of duties should begin immediately. For example, immediately begin salvaging any floating materials that may be of any possible use, assess the condition of the crew as to injuries, assess the condition of the raft, and inventory rations and supplies.

The important thing is to embark on a course of immediate positive activity. Purposeful action will enable you to deal most efficiently with your survival circum stances and will help ward off the initial paralyzing effects of shock and despair.


All castaways must deal with the isolation and loneliness inherent in their situation. Along with isolation comes fear and uncertainty. The constant belief and reaffirmation that you will survive is essential in helping to control fear. The key to dealing with isolation is to establish order and purpose in a situation that may otherwise seem chaotic and overwhelming.

Establish routines and make sure everyone adheres to them. This will create order and stability. Include every person in these routines and duties, even if (as in the case of injured crew members) this means assigning trivial tasks. This allows each crew member to feel that he is contributing to the overall welfare of the group, and to feel useful and purposeful. It also ensures that certain necessary duties are accomplished and that there is a minimum of wasted or duplicated efforts.

It is also important to establish goals to provide the desperate castaway with a purpose for his actions. Whether they are long-term or short-term goals (such as reaching a shipping lane or catching dinner), goals will help divert the castaway’s mind from feelings of despair and isolation. Establishing a realistic goal that is supported by routines will not only provide the castaway with something to look forward to, but will also help keep his mind focused in a positive direction.


The isolated castaway is vulnerable to experiencing loneliness, boredom, depression, anxiety, resignation, and despair, sometimes at severe levels. Any one of these conditions at an extreme level can represent a significant threat to the castaway by displacing purposeful actions or causing irrational behavior. The potentially detrimental effects of any one, or a combination of these emotional states can be lessened by constant affirmative action and by keeping the mind occupied.

In a group situation, it is important to pursue actions that support and bolster the morale of the entire group. The depressed mind is capable of doing anything. A person who throws himself overboard in an apparent attempt to drown himself might be demonstrating a need. By saving this person you will demonstrate to the others that life is important and that there is still hope left in the situation. Patience, encouragement, reassurance, and support will do more to develop the confidence of a distraught crew member than urgent demands or desperate appeals of logic.

The castaway is likely to suffer low emotional states following thwarted expectations, such as the sighting of a potential rescue ship that fails to see him. To be emotion ally prepared for the disappointment of being “passed by,” the castaway must not pin all of his hopes on a chance rescue, but instead must continue to adhere to his daily routines and long-term goals. With today’s widespread use of sophisticated navigational aids and automatic pilots on ships and planes, it is easy to see how highly automated vessels could pass by a small life raft, even at very close range. In one documented case in which the castaways were adrift for 117 days, they sighted six ships before they were finally rescued by a seventh.

Mirages are a common phenomenon, both on land and at sea, and can be very confusing and disorienting. The castaway must also be on guard for the disappointment and “let down” that can result from mistaking a mirage for a landfall or a rescue ship. Mirages can change appearance and height while being viewed, and can also shimmer or disappear. Heat, light, and refraction all combine to give the false appearance of such images as land, ships, or even (when combined with exhaustion and dehydration) out right hallucinations. Experiencing mirages at sea does not necessarily mean that the castaway is suffering from delusions.

Affirmative actions, positive attitudes, and long-range goals cannot be over emphasized in a survival situation. Dangerous and paralyzing emotional states arising from feelings of desperation and hopelessness can be as grave a threat to the castaway as the lack of food or water. The degree to which a survivor is effective in carrying out the vital tasks of obtaining food and water will be influenced by his emotional state of health.


An important part of daily existence will be finding constructive ways to pass time. This can help to displace negative emotions that could inhibit your ability to function. A purposefully occupied mind is less likely to indulge in such counterproductive feelings as pity and despair.

Passing time in the group situation can consist of playing games, learning skills, tying knots, or storytelling. Relating past experiences to each other or detailing descriptions of future plans or even fantasizing daydreams aloud can also be effective. All of these can provide a positive way to pass time.

Prayer, self-hypnosis, and meditation can also provide support and activity to the crew. This type of quiet, directed mental activity is far better than undirected listless ness. It is also superior to physical activities that often require exertion and burn up precious calories the body may need. Use physical energy primarily for food and water gathering activities.


As rations are depleted during the course of the survival period, there may come a point where the amount of supplies available is not sufficient to allow every crew member to remain coherent. It may be necessary at this point to choose one person, the strongest, to be given more rations. The purpose behind this course of action is to actually increase the chance for the entire group to survive. It allows for at least one person to remain alert enough to recognize and signal a passing vessel, gather food, or to effect a landfall. Although this course of action may run counter to the natural survival instinct of “every man for himself,” it is important to realize that it may ultimately serve the best interests of the group. The important goal is survival.

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