This article was originally published on Psychology Today on February 28, 2019.
Psychology survival tips to help you navigate extreme events.
First I heard a twig crack. Then what sounded like gunshots erupted all around me. Out of nowhere, several armed rebels propelled down the 6-foot embankment on my left. I sprinted toward an opening in the trail ahead as my body kicked into flight mode.
A few years ago, I was asked to attend a mountaintop base camp where an international humanitarian aid organization was training new recruits. They asked me to provide trauma training and psychological support during their crisis simulations. But when the training took an unexpected turn, what I experienced taught me a few helpful tactics for survival that can be employed in fight-or-flight situations.
While preparing for new recruits, the staff decided to run some of their more experienced team members through a fake hostage simulation to make sure it was ready. Since I was already there, I volunteered to play the part of a hostage in the role play.
The staff playing the part of hostage takers set out into the rugged hillside to prepare the ambush while the rest of us waded deeper into the wilderness.
About 40 minutes into our hike, I suddenly found myself in the middle of an ambush. I bolted as soon as I realized what was happening, running toward an opening in the brush alongside a small creek. Just as I hit what I thought was my way out, another hostage taker sprung up from behind fallen trees and blocked my path, waving a fake weapon at me. With all my attention on the danger in front of me, I didn’t realize I had been surrounded. With fake weapons aimed at me, they ordered me to the ground and forced a gunnysack over my head.
I felt my body start to instinctually shift from flight to fight mode. Then, to my surprise, the hostage training I had received some six years earlier, while working as a crisis therapist in a maximum-security correctional facility, kicked in.
I started taking deep, gulping breaths.
With each rush of air, I started to regain my bearings. As I started to take control of my fight or flight response, I stopped judging the thoughts still racing through my mind. I did my best to just let them be, and focus instead on what was going on around me and within me.
After about 10 minutes of darkness, they finally removed the sack from my head. Blinded by the sudden sunlight, my eyes struggled to adjust. Despite my disorientation and blurry vision, I could tell from their nonverbal communication that they were looking for U.S. dollars.
“If I give them the cash then they’ll have no reason to keep us alive,” I thought to myself.
I continued to take deep breaths. I now noticed the rebels I’d heard in the background starting to distance. I decided that if they were going to kidnap us, they would have focused on moving us to another location, not search us out in the open. I motioned to the rebels where I had tucked away my money in my backpack.
Next thing I knew, the gunnysack was back on my head. Within minutes the trail went silent. Then I heard my colleague whisper. We decided to wait a few more minutes before trying to get free, just in case the rebels were still watching.
The whole ordeal was over less than 30 minutes after I first heard that twig crack. But in that short period of time, my fight or flight response kicked in, and I ran right into a trap. After being taken hostage, adrenaline coursing, I foolishly tried to hold my ground against the rebels. This only angered them and made the situation worse.
It was becoming aware that I wasn’t in control of my body and taking deep breaths to help regain that control, that helped calm my fight or flight response. Allowing myself to recognize my thoughts rather than judging them eventually allowed me to gain even more control over my body.
Instead of focusing on all the yelling and noise, I zoned in on what I wasn’t hearing. Noticing what was missing helped me realize the situation was actually deescalating. I decided to stay still, wait it out, and hope for the best.
My hope is that if you ever encounter such an intense situation, it will just be a role play for you, too. But in the event that it’s not, remember to be aware of your fight or flight response, use deep breathing to gain control over your body, and be mindful of what is happening around you. These steps can’t guarantee everything will be all right, but they will give you a fighting chance at survival.
For more on the psychology of survival, see my previous blog post on Wired for Survival.