Ready for Anything: Mental Preparedness

Being mentally prepared for emergencies is not something we talk about very often when we discuss disaster preparedness, but it may be the most important survival skill of all. Physical preparedness (having food and water stored, etc) will keep you nourished, but psychological preparedness is what will help you survive.

Sometimes we hear stories of people who have lived through drastic survival situations—the most dramatic example that comes to my mind is Aron Ralston, who cut off his own arm to free himself from a boulder that had pinned him down for 5 ½ days—and we think, I could never do that. The goal of mental preparedness is to make you more able to survive situations that are extremely challenging, situations you might not be able to handle otherwise.

First Things First

In order to get anywhere with mental preparedness, you must first be physically prepared by gathering all the food, water, and emergency supplies your family needs. Being prepared for all the physical necessities of an emergency situation will automatically put you in a better mental state during the emergency. When you are prepared with the resources your family will need, you don’t have the burden of figuring out how you are going to feed your family, what you are going to cook their food with, and how you are going to keep everyone healthy and safe. You also don’t have to bear the guilt of relying on someone else who is prepared (and generous) or worry about taking precious resources from them. This is why the first part of getting yourself mentally ready is to get yourself physically ready.

Once you’ve got the physical stuff figured out, you can then focus on sharpening your psychological readiness.

Five Ways to Mentally Prepare for Emergency Situations

1. Develop mental toughness. Recent studies have shown that while resilience can be an inherited trait, it can also be developed through certain habits. Here are a few practices you can carry out to help you toughen up mentally:

Get physically fit. You can’t toughen your body without automatically toughening your mind. Challenging workouts strengthen your mental ability to endure discomfort and pain, and they also give you more confidence in your physical and mental strength. Run an extra mile, do an extra set of squats, push yourself beyond your former limits so that you are constantly increasing your strength and stamina.

Live a disciplined life. Set rules for yourself when it comes to work habits, eating habits, exercising habits, and sleep habits.

Don’t get too comfortable. On a daily basis, make yourself do something that takes you out of your comfort zone physically or mentally. In a great article on mental toughness, Erich at recommends randomly doing things like fasting for 24 hours, taking ice-cold showers, going sky-diving, or making yourself wake up at 3:00 in the morning every now and then. Many of these may sound like just plain torture, but anytime you make yourself do things you don’t want to do, you become tougher and better able to handle stress. Remember Woodrow Wilson’s famous words: “Let me remind you that it is only by working with an energy which is almost superhuman and which looks to uninterested spectators like insanity that we can accomplish anything worth the achievement.”

2. Practice a positive attitude. It’s on every motivational poster known to mankind, but that doesn’t make it less true: Attitude is everything. Especially when you are in a life-threatening situation. Last April, TIME reported on a U.S. military program being implemented in which drill sergeants were receiving what they called mental toughness training. In this training, the main goal was to make soldiers more resilient by helping them to—get this—think like optimists. The idea behind the training was that positive thinking makes people more able to endure and thrive in difficult situations. It’s classic psychology: You become who you think you are; you achieve the things you believe you can.

3. Know (and regularly use) some basic relaxation techniques. Practice calming yourself down in stressful situations throughout your daily life so that you can calm yourself during bigger, more stressful situations in an emergency situation. Consider practicing meditation, breathing techniques, yoga, or any other practice that works for you. The important thing is that you make use of these techniques now, when you are not in a survival situation, so that when you are, they will be second nature to you.

4. Do your homework. Spend time filling your brain with emergency procedure knowledge. Collect survival skills like they are scout badges. Whether it’s learning how to identify edible wild plants, perfecting your fire-starting skills, taking a first aid class, or learning how to gut a fish, any survival skill you acquire will give you a leg up mentally when the time comes to use it. Not only will you know how to do this new skill, you will also have more confidence in your ability to rely on yourself for survival in an emergency situation, making you more mentally prepared in the process.

5. Trust yourself. There are two things that most people discover quickly in emergency situations: (1) Life is hard. (2) People are tough. In general, people tend to be much stronger than they think they are and more resilient and adaptable too. Trust your instincts and trust yourself that you are going to be able to tackle any situation. Many people who have survived disaster situations are surprised to find that they didn’t even have to consider what they would do; they immediately found themselves stepping up to challenges and doing what had to be done. If you have prepared yourself physically and mentally, you will likely find this to be true of yourself too. Any time you doubt your abilities, remember the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Fear defeats more people than any other one thing in the world.”

Any survival situation requires a great deal of mental effort to keep you positive, long-suffering, relaxed, and confident, but these traits are what will ultimately keep you alive. Foster them now and increase your chances of staying alive later.

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