Adversity and Survival

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image by radzfoto
image by radzfoto

I recently read an article about a young man who lost a leg to a land mine while hiking in a third-world country.  This stalwart outdoorsman was instantly transformed into a frightened victim with months of surgery, physical therapy, and prosthetic training in his future.

His journey through adversity and survival was inspiring, as he battled (as you can imagine) deep depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome in addition to his physical wounds.  Eventually, he formed a support group for survivors, which eventually won a Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to ban landmines.

This got me thinking about adversity in general, and how the preparedness community could face plenty of it in the uncertain future. Regardless of your level of preparedness, you will likely face your own metaphorical landmine or two after a major disaster.  How you deal with these issues will determine your ultimate success or failure.

As a doctor, what could I tell you that would help you overcome the challenges you would face and remain physically and mentally healthy?

The Physical Component

Physically, the ability to overcome adversity is controlling the stress response.

Chronic exposure to stress will weaken your immune system.  Failure to control the physical effects of stress can lead to various ailments that will decrease your chances of survival. Besides depression,  these include ulcers, asthma, heart disease, and diabetes.

Stress can also lead to a cascade of destructive behaviors, such as alcohol abuse and smoking (such as: “Man, I am so stressed out!  I need a drink!”).

Adverse events are part of any survival scenario.  Stress is not always bad: facing challenges can make you stronger. Who makes it and who doesn’t will depend on their resilience. Education, training, and experience are essential, but resilience, or the lack of it, is the factor that will assure success or failure.

A person’s tendency to overcome adversity is partly nature and partly nurture.

Could this ability be inherited?

Certainly, some children warm up to new tasks or people more effectively than others. Yet, there are many environmental factors that play a part: family support, financial status, quality of schooling, and various others.  An unemployed introvert is at a disadvantage when compared to the monetarily secure individual who belongs to a close family or active religious/social community.

Despite this, it is possible to increase your ability to overcome adversity through a disciplined approach.   You can:

  • learn to regulate emotions
  • adopt a realistic, positive attitude
  • become physically fit
  • develop a supportive community


If you can control feelings of anger, fear, insecurity, and sadness, you can maintain a clear head in times of trouble. 

Oftentimes, people interpret a negative event as being worse than it is. Studies at Columbia University show that people who intentionally “reappraise” an event, such as a rejected application, as being less negative actually increase the activity of the part of the brain that helps to plan and direct. Reappraisal also seems to inhibit the activity of the part of the brain that is involved in feelings of fear.  Study participants reported a stronger sense of well-being after adopting this strategy, which I call “looking for the silver lining in the storm cloud”.

This glass-half-full approach could be useful everywhere from the athletic field to the workplace to the hospital room. Those patients with the ability to find a neutral or positive interpretation of a negative event tend to live longer and have a better quality of life than those who don’t.

In another study performed many years ago, a group of women was asked to write a life history. These were rated according to the degree to which they expressed positive emotions.  34% of those who wrote negative history were alive after 80 years of age compared to 90% of the women who wrote positive histories.

In survival scenarios, however, the risk of positive reappraisal could lead to denial of negative events.  If this occurs, you might underestimate dangerous situations; realism and positivity have to strike a balance.

Physical Exertion

It is well known that physical activity increases the “feel-good” substances in your brain known as endorphins and improves your resilience. It also inhibits the stress hormone known as cortisol. Regular physical activity is not only good for your heart.

Studies at the University of Colorado show that regular aerobic exercise has various benefits: a decrease in anxiety/depression and an improvement in attention span, decision making, and memory.  At the University of Illinois, moderate exercise studies seem to indicate improved growth and repair of brain cells.

NOTE:  Always check with your physician to make sure an aerobic exercise program is safe for you.


An effective strategy to improve your ability to overcome adversity is to establish and maintain strong relationships with other members of the preparedness community. A sense of security due to support from others allows you to deal with stressful events positively and has even been shown to lower ill-effects suffered in veterans from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

A supportive community bolsters self-confidence and provides a safety net that minimizes the damage from failure.  Social bonds are the glue that will keep us together in dark times; make an effort to develop these now by joining your religious community, social organization, and otherwise connecting with like-minded individuals.

You may think you are connected well to others, but ask yourself some questions:

  • Who do you interact with regularly?
  • Who would help you in times of trouble without hesitating?
  • Who would YOU help without hesitating?
  • Who do you turn to for advice who is glad to give it?
  • Who do you know who has bounced back from adversity?

If your answer is few or none to the above, spend some time and effort to develop new and stronger relationships.

We have to be prepared to deal with setbacks if the you-know-what hits the fan.  If we can see negative events as a bump in the road instead of the END of the road, we can succeed, even if everything else fails.

Joe and Amy Alton are the authors of the #1 Amazon Bestseller “The Survival Medicine Handbook”. See their articles in Backwoods Home, Survivalist, Self Reliance Illustrated, and Survival Quarterly magazines and at their website.

Guest post by Joe Alton, M.D. aka Dr. Bones of Doom and Bloom

6 thoughts on “Adversity and Survival”

  1. The Survival Mom

    Some articles get tons of comments, others don’t. It seems to be whatever catches the attention of readers.

  2. My favorite tip was “to establish and maintain strong relationships with other members of the preparedness community.” When you can find a local preparedness group to connect with, you really can feel safe knowing that you have like-minded people to turn to in an emergency. Of course, being prepared with supplies and plans also helps a lot. Great post!

  3. Lisa,

    Thank you for the post. The advice you give is spot on, however I believe the biggest problem people face is actually MAKING these changes. In other words, they know WHAT to change, but they have no clue how to do it in a way that works. I feel like there is more need for information like this:

    “This is how you do it…”

    Rather than:

    “This is what you need to do and why”

    The latter is great to read, but it is the former that really change’s people’s lives. This is just my personal opinion of course, take it for whatever it’s worth 🙂

    Thanks again for the post and bringing up some key survival issues here.

  4. I am a retired US Army Veteran and fairly new to the “prepping” scene if you will and although I have started slowly, I feel like I am making good progress. I love reading your articles and the information you provide.

    I just bought your book for my girlfriend and I know she will like it; as she I both share the love of being prepared. I do have a question: How is the best way to find others of like minds? I am moving back home to the College Station, Texas area and I would like to get to know people who like to be prepared for anything.

    Thank you again and keep up the great work!!! 🙂

  5. This is the best type of prepping not taught and that’s prepping yourself. Being fit and active is prepared. controlling your adrenaline is prepared and so on.

    Thanks for delivering such a strong message that we all need reminding off.

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