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The Psychology of Survival: Maintaining Mental Health in High-Stress Situations

Survival scenarios are stressful by definition. But there are ways to successfully move through high-stress situations with confidence and ways to prepare yourself for them mentally ahead of time, too.

Read on to learn more about the psychology of survival and how you can maintain your mental health in challenging and traumatic situations.

Psychology of Survival

How Stress Affects the Mind and Body

The psychology of survival teaches us that the human brain and nervous system respond to stress in known ways.

Reflex Reactions in High-Stress Situations

In moments of acute stress, the human body reacts reflexively in several specific ways.

The first reflex, for some people, is a “freeze” or shutdown response. This reflex is known as immobilization. Others jump right to the second level of stress response with an immediate mobilization or a “fight or flight” reaction instead.

But past the “freeze, fight or flight” responses, there’s a third way that the mind and body react to stress. If you can overcome those reflex reactions in a high-stress situation, your brain will enter a mode of acute focus and creativity. This state of engagement and heightened mental acuity is what allows people to survive and even thrive in extremely stressful situations.

After-effects of High-Stress Survival Situations

After a high-stress situation, some symptoms may linger from the experience.

For some, the physical and mental aftereffects of a stressful event will diminish within about a month. This is known as Acute Stress Disorder. For others, symptoms that disrupt regular life activities can be more long-lasting. Symptoms persisting longer than a month can indicate Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. If you’re still feeling the effects of a high-stress situation, it’s recommended to seek help from medical professionals.

How to Prepare for High-Stress Survival Situations

There are things you can do to prepare yourself for a high-stress survival situation and hopefully avoid those more serious after-effects.

Prepare yourself mentally by cultivating healthy coping skills for managing the energy of anxiety and dealing with difficult emotions. And train in essential skills to prepare for a variety of potential survival situations.

Develop Healthy Coping Skills

One of the best things you can do to mentally prepare yourself for thriving under stress and pressure is to train your brain in healthy coping skills.


Mindfulness and meditation are forms of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that you can use to train your mind to overcome difficult emotions in times of stress.

Practice recognizing when your thoughts begin to spiral or hyper-focus on something negative or upsetting. This moment of recognition allows you to then let go of unhelpful or unwelcome thoughts and feelings, diminishing their power and influence over the mind and body.

Deep Breathing

Reduce the hold anxiety has on your physical body by learning to control your breath. Practice deep breathing techniques now, and you’ll know how to use them to slow your breath if you catch yourself hyperventilating in a stressful situation.

Positive Self-Talk

In high-stress survival situations, it’s important to stay positive. Start making positive self-talk a habit now, and you’ll be more mentally prepared to remain calm and confident in moments of acute stress.


Another thing you can do is practice gratitude. Learn to appreciate what you have and celebrate what you’ve accomplished. This is a skill that will serve you in stressful survival situations, where goal-setting and positivity are crucial to maintaining mental health.

Train in Essential Survival Skills

In addition to mentally preparing for high-stress situations, you can greatly increase your odds of success in survival scenarios by educating yourself on practical skills you might need.

Check out these resources for learning how to build survival fires, perform CPR, and survive extreme weather.

Psychology of Survival

How to Cope in High-Stress Survival Situations

The psychology of survival has proven that these five things can help you to cope with and move through the difficult emotions of high-stress survival situations.

Assess Your Mental and Physiological State

First, take a mental inventory. Are you in freeze, fight, or flight mode? If so, take some deep breaths and remember these are temporary mental states that you can move through.

Reflect on Past Experiences

Remind yourself of past experiences where you confronted a stressful scenario and overcame it. This helps you to then visualize success in your current situation.

Identify the Highest Priority

Focus on one small goal at a time. Evaluate what’s the highest priority in a given moment, and devote your thoughts solely to accomplishing it.

Communicate and Collaborate

If you’re in a high-stress survival situation with others, assume a leadership role by focusing on clear, calm communication.

Once you’ve moved past the fight, flight, or freeze reflexes, your brain is actually primed for creative thought and social engagement in a high-stress situation. Collaborate and listen to others. Work as a team, and you’ll improve your odds of success.

Stay Positive

Celebrating small victories and focusing on the positive can provide you with the continued mental and physical energy you need to keep pushing toward your goal.

Recovery from High-Stress Survival Situations

No one’s trauma recovery journey is the same. But the psychology of survival tells us that there are specific things you can do to assist in such recovery.

Keep reading for a few ideas you can try as you work to move on from the aftereffects of a high-stress event.

Take Care of Yourself

Here are a few things you can do on your own to ease and reduce the symptoms of traumatic stress.

Practice Self-Care

Practice self-care by devoting a little of your time to practicing meditation. Apps like Calm and Headspace have all kinds of guided meditations that can help you slow and control your breathing, shift your perspective, and focus on positive thoughts.

Process the Experience

It’s important to think through and process a stressful experience rather than avoiding thoughts about it.

You can do some work on your own to process your experience, but confronting and coming to terms with traumatic memories is difficult and emotionally taxing. It’s recommended you have a professional counselor you can reach out to if your symptoms are worsened while you work.

Gradual Exposure

If certain places or things trigger traumatic memories, don’t feel like you have to face them all at once. Mental health professionals recommend gradual exposure to triggers over time.

How Others Can Help

There’s no shame in seeking help as you work to recover from a traumatic event.

Whether you talk about your mental health concerns with a professional counselor, a friend or family member, or any other confidant – partnering with a trusted individual for support can greatly aid your recovery.

Professional Support Services

If you’re interested in speaking with a counselor or other mental health professional but don’t know where to start, it may be simpler than you think. If you have health insurance coverage, try calling your insurance for a referral. And whether or not you have an insurance plan that covers therapy services, you can also try online therapy with an app-based counseling service like BetterHelp.

For those struggling with substance overuse or abuse, SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a great place to start learning about where and how to get help.

Psychology of Survival

Frequently Asked Questions about the Psychology of Survival

Keep reading for answers to some common questions about maintaining mental health in high-stress situations.

How do you thrive in high stress situations?

To ensure you will thrive in high-stress situations, start preparing for them now. Develop healthy coping skills and learn to manage difficult emotions. And educate yourself in skills and knowledge sets that you may need in potentially stressful situations.

What are unhealthy ways to cope with stress?

Unhealthy ways that some people attempt to cope with stress include:

  • Substance overuse and abuse,
  • Over-eating,
  • Overworking,
  • Social withdrawal,
  • Sleeping too much,
  • and aggressive, impulsive, or dangerous behaviors.

For some, it’s difficult to stop replying upon unhealthy coping mechanisms. Those needing help with substance abuse can call SAMHSA for free treatment referral services.

Wrapping Up the Psychology of Survival

Understanding the psychology of survival is the first step to preparing yourself for highly stressful situations.

Next, check out this guide to creating your own Emergency Preparedness Kit.