We're all captivated by tales of survival. On screen or in print, when we hear about people in life-threatening situations, we're drawn in (and if bug-eating is involved, so much the better).
Why the fascination? Stories of survival bring out some of humans' best qualities: courage, strength, determination, resourcefulness, and compassion. Facing mortal danger is the ultimate reality show. After all, what could be more extreme than fighting for one's life?
The theme of survival also makes for great entertainment, whether the story is real or imagined. We relish the way TV heroes like 24's Jack Bauer cheat death over and over. Insanely popular Survivor, in which players must build shelters, collect water, and forage for food (all the while scheming to outlast each other), has rolled through season after season. The popular Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook and its spin-offs are tongue-in-cheek guides to all sorts of tricky situations, from landing a plane to treating bullet wounds (though probably not at the same time). Movies like Touching the Void, an incredible true story about two men on a disastrous climbing expedition in the Peruvian Andes, keep us on the edge of our seats. There are many books by and about people who have survived terrible situations and emerged from the experience with profound insights into the meaning of life.
Programs and stories like these make us wonder what we would do in similar situations. Snowboarder Eric LeMarque built a compass and used the radio signal on his MP3 player to navigate his way off a frozen mountain. Steven Callahan, lost at sea on an inflatable raft, drifted for 76 days before he was rescued. Aron Ralston, a hiker, cut off his own arm after being pinned under an 800-pound boulder for six days. Could you do these things?
If your answer was "No way, I could never do that!" – well, not so fast. Extreme situations push people to do things they aren't usually capable of. You might be surprised by your own survival instincts, and how much you know that could help save your life.
Perhaps you've heard stories of people who suddenly developed incredible strength and speed in a dangerous situation. This happens when adrenaline, a stress hormone, floods your system, raising your heart rate and giving you a temporary burst of energy. Another stress hormone, cortisol, increases the amount of glucose (sugar) in your bloodstream and helps your brain use it. You experience heightened concentration and agility, and the surge of adrenaline also decreases your sensitivity to pain.
Attitude may be the most important aspect of survival. Experts say that psychological and physical readiness can help a person prevail over terrible circumstances. Indeed, a common element in life-and-death stories is the survivors' sheer will to live, their determination to help themselves rather than simply hope for rescue. When faced with a scary situation, people often freeze up and feel disbelief at first. Survivors are those who quickly get past the surprise and denial and take action.
You may have knowledge and skills that come in handy. Steven Callahan, the man who was lost at sea, was a sailor and shipbuilder, and he had read the survival stories of other sailors. His boat sank while he was racing solo from Spain to Antigua. Callahan used his knowledge of marine life to catch food, and he produced clean water with a solar still saved from his sinking boat. Determined to beat the odds, he lived to tell his tale after facing storms, sharks, salt-water sores, and severe sunburn.
Inspiration can also come from unlikely sources. Eric LeMarque, the snowboarder who was lost for a week after taking a wrong turn in the Sierra Nevada, got the idea for his compass – built from a needle and a piece of wood – from a movie he'd seen.
There is also a lot we can do to prepare ourselves for disasters and emergencies. For example, you can learn self-defense skills and how to do first aid and CPR. It's a good idea to keep emergency supplies in your car and at home. You can purchase kits or follow Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada's recommendations at www.getprepared.ca.
Take an outdoor survival course, learn simple car repair skills (such as changing a flat tire), educate yourself about safe travel and, of course, use common sense to avoid dangerous situations. Getprepared.ca offers advice on what to do during natural disasters and severe weather.
Knowing what to do can help you feel more confident and in control when trouble arises – help yourself ahead of time so you, too, can be a survivor.