By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
A man sat adrift on a capsized boat for a day before the Japanese Coast Guard rescued him. The boat turned over near Yakushima, the southern Japanese resort island. Psychological perseverance is a major part of survival.
Rescuers from the Japanese Coast Guard received calls from a man’s colleagues, prompting a search for him in open waters. Eventually they found him in a capsized boat, after approximately 24 hours, wrapped in a plastic sheet and clinging to the boat’s propeller. The cause of capsizing and the what the man’s activities were during the accident remain unknown, but he was taken to the hospital after being rescued.
While the accident’s details and those of the survivor remain scant, part of his survival is due to his determination to survive a seemingly hopeless situation. In her video series Surviving Mentality: The Psychology of Staying Alive, Professor Nancy Zarse, Professor of Forensic Psychology at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, outlined perseverance’s role in a crisis.
Control of Attention
The first aspect of perseverance that Professor Zarse mentioned is controlling your attention, which she outlined through a story about a swimmer named Phil. After being shot, it took some time for Phil to get out of his house, into an ambulance, and to the hospital. He maintained control of his breathing to conserve oxygen, which he learned through his many years as a swimmer. So how did he stay focused on this for so long, going from his house to the ER?
“The answer is that his time as an athlete had given him another skill in addition to controlling his breathing,” Professor Zarse said. “He had the skill of controlling his attention. Controlling attention is a critical skill that takes practice to develop, and it is an essential part of perseverance.”
She said that controlling attention required the mastery of three dimensions: intensity, duration, and flexibility. Intensity means whether someone can focus hard enough. Duration means whether they can focus long enough. Flexibility is about whether someone can shift their attention when necessary. Surprisingly, this applies to the survivor of the capsized boat, who had very little else on which to focus.
“Your attention can easily be swayed by your emotion and your arousal level, so managing your emotions is also an important component in perseverance,” Professor Zarse said. “When you’re overly aroused, your emotions can easily distract you from what’s important to survive.”
The Benefits of Mental Conditioning
Professor Zarse said it’s possible to build a positive mental attitude before encountering a critical event by way of mental conditioning, which she said prepares us cognitively and emotionally to encounter extreme stress. When someone realizes that they’re definitely in danger, fear follows. Our bodies trigger our fight-or-flight response, but that response can also take away from our cognitive functions. That’s where conditioning enters the picture.
“Preparation helps to counter the physiological arousal in your body as well as that potential incapacitating fear,” she said. “The more you prepare, the greater the likelihood that you respond automatically, without even thinking, and with more confidence. The more we’ve trained ourselves in a variety of simulated or non-life-threatening stressful events, the more we are mentally conditioned to encounter them in a critical situation.”
Hypothetically running through natural disaster situations may seem silly to us when we sit at a cubicle or on the bus, but for anyone whose hobbies carry risk of life and limb—whether it’s sailing, mountain climbing, skydiving, or otherwise—this kind of mental conditioning could help tip the balance of life or death in their favor.
As already stated, perseverance often involves a person’s previous mental conditioning and their ability to control their attention.