Reviews: Five Top Survival Psychology Books

Shared with permission of Leon from
Posted on June 4th, 2010 by Leon in Recommended Readings

by Leon Pantenburg

Any list you make shows your priorities, and hopefully this list will help establish some in your survival planning!

The idea behind started several years ago. As a journalist, I was often on the scene of natural disasters, catastrophes, accidents and search and rescue missions. My observations lead me to this premise: Survival is mostly psychological.

This is certainly no groundbreaking revelation on my part!

“The best survival tool is between your ears,” claims wilderness survival expert Peter Kummerfeldt. This idea is further reinforced by Cody Lundin, another wilderness and urban survival expert, who maintains that 90 percent of survival in any situation is psychological.

One goal of is to help you develop the survival mindset that will keep you alive. So, let’s start with the baseline knowledge of what happens to people, mentally, in a survival situation. Until you know what might happen in your mind, or in the heads of the people around you, there’s no way to come up with a plan to survive.

With a survival mindset, you can survive anything. Without one, you won’t!

These five are among my favorite survival psychology books, and they deserve a place among your prepper or urban or wilderness survival tools. Here’s some good choices to get you started on creating your survival library:

Union prisoners are seen crowding near the main gate of the Camp Sumter, or Andersonville,

Union prisoners are seen crowding near the main gate of Andersonville Civil War Prison. The prisoners had some of the psychological reactions anybody would have in an emergency!

“Survival Psychology” by John Leach

Some 20-odd years before the rash of “reality” or “survivor” shows, or anybody had ever heard of Les Stroud or Bear Grylls,  psychological studies resulted in a book which documented people’s  reactions  in emergency situations.

“Survival Psychology” by John Leach, PhD, of the University of Lancaster, England, was a groundbreaking study, that today is a reference source for many wilderness and urban survival bestsellers. If some of Leach’s writing or thoughts sound familiar, it is because you’ve read or heard them before!

Leach studied survivors’ reactions, including those of Union prisoners at the horrific Andersonville prison during the Civil War;  to shipwreck survivors; to people who made it through plane crashes and natural disasters.

Distilled down to one sentence, here’s what Leach found: Psychological responses to emergencies follow a pattern.

Survival situations bring out a variety of reactions – including some that make the situation worse. Leach’s studies show that only 10 to 15 percent of any group involved in any emergency will react appropriately. Another 10 to 15 percent will behave totally inappropriately and the remaining 70 to 80 percent will need to be told what to do. The most common reaction at the onset of an emergency is disbelief and denial.

“Survival Psychology” is out-of-print, as far as I know. But I’ve had no trouble getting a copy through the local inter-library loan program. Your library probably has a similar program, so check out Leach’s book. Survival Psychology

“I Sit and Stay: A Survival Guide for Kids (and parents, too!)” by Leah L. Waarvik Kids need to be outside. They need to be taking advantage of our great outdoors as opposed to vegetating in front of computer or TV screens. But anyone who goes into wilderness areas needs to do so safely, and  “I Sit and Stay” teaches your children what to do if they get lost.

Author Leah Waarvik is a search-and-rescue professional who works as part of a canine team to find missing people in the wilderness. She wrote “I Sit and Stay” after hearing stories of children who were lost and unprepared. The title says it all: Teach your lost children to stay in one place and await rescue.

Written in interesting, easy-to-understand terms, the lesson of staying-put is taught through the characters of Emma and Koa, two wilderness search-and-rescue dogs. The book also mentions and discusses three simple tools that every child (I say every person, regardless of age!) should be taught to use and carry on every outdoor excursion:

After being taught how to use these items, the child should also be trained to carry these survival tools in their pockets or pack. Pockets are probably the best, since a child will probably lose their backpack before their pants! Survival Kit for I Sit and Stay A Survival Guide for Kids and Parents Too!

A survival mindset is a requirement to join this exclusive club!

“The Survivors Club” by Ben Sherwood

Most of us can’t take all the survival field classes and seminars we’d like to, and only a fool would create a real emergency to see how he might react!

Author Ben Sherwood interviewed people who have survived everything from the World War II Holocaust to the Twin Towers tragedy on 9/11. He was seeking a common ground, a kind of definition, about why some people survive catastrophes, disasters, and emergency situations and why others don’t.

His conclusion, after extensive research, is that the most important part of survival is in your mind. And – no surprise here – you must develop a survival mindset.

So where do you begin?

According to the U.S. military, you must first decide you will survive.  The US Army Field Survival Manual, in their official instruction for how to stay alive in hostile environments, offers this advice on the very first pages:

“Without the will to survive, your chances of surviving are greatly diminished,” the book states. US Army Survival Manual: FM 21-76 , Illustrated

The next step to surviving is to accept that whatever is happening to you is not unique. We all want to think we’re special, Sherwood, writes, but any survival situation will cause people to react in established behavior patterns. The sooner you get over being incredulous, the sooner you can start reacting in a positive way and come up with a plan.

Then, a survivor must do something. The most common reaction, regardless of the circumstances, is to do nothing, hang tight and wait for someone else to react first, or tell them what to do.

But surprisingly, there aren’t a lot of panic attacks during an emergency. Researchers examining crises as disparate as the WWII London Blitz and the attacks of Sept 11 found people rarely lose total control and run around mindlessly. Rather, most just freeze until they’re told what to do.

So we keep reading The Survivors Club, because we all want to know the secret, the one thing that can make a difference between living and dying.

What is the secret of survival? Sherwood asked Ray Smith, former Marine Drill Instructor, with 27 years on active duty in the Navy as a survival instructor. Smith is the author of  How to Survive on Land and Sea. Smith’s answer is simple.

“Faith in God,” Smith says “It’s a major factor in all survival scenarios.”

I first ran into the writings of Viktor Frankl, eminent psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, when I was in graduate school. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning remains one of my favorite books. So it was no surprise to me that Frankl was mentioned in The Survivors Club. Frankl developed a survival mindset to get through Auschwitz.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing:” Frankl observed, “The last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Purpose gives you the why – the meaning and mission – in your life. It also gives you the power to survive.

“The Survivors Club” deserves reading and re-reading. It teaches about the most important part of any survival situation: Your reaction to what is happening to you.The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life

Deep Survival is another great choice for your wilderness or urban survival library!

Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Lawrence Gonzales

I read “Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, And Why”  in a few marathon sessions. The fast-paced accounts of real life survival situations are mesmerizing. It’s a good survival mindset read and I couldn’t help wondering what I might do in some of the situations.

In the book, Gonzales mentions 12 points that disaster survivors seemed to have in common.  These points are definitely worth reading and thinking about, even if you don’t get anything else out of the book.

  1. Perceive, believe: If there is any denial, it is counterbalanced by a solid belief in the clear evidence of their senses. In other words, survivors establish a survival mindset immediately. They see opportunity, even good, in their situation.
  2. Stay calm (use humor, use fear to focus) In the initial crisis, survivors use fear, and aren’t ruled by it.
  3. Think/analyze/plan: Survivors quickly organize, set up small manageable tasks. In other words, they’re using the STOP tool.
  4. Take correct decisive action: Survivors were able to convert thoughts to action. They deal with what they can from moment to moment, hour to hour.
  5. Celebrate successes: This is important to maintaining motivation and avoiding hopelessness.
  6. Count you blessings: Be grateful you’re alive.
  7. Play: Sing, play mind games, recite poetry, count things etc.
  8. See the beauty: Survivors are attuned to the wonder of the world.
  9. Believe you will succeed: All the above practices lead to the point where survivors become convinced they will prevail.
  10. Surrender: Let go of your fear of dying. This is the type of thinking John Leach calls: “resignation without giving up. It is survival by surrender.”
  11. Do whatever is necessary: Survivors know their abilities and don’t over or under estimate them. They believe anything is possible and act accordingly.
  12. Never give up: There is always one more thing you can do.

“The Unthinkable” is a thought-provoking look at what happens during emergencies, before help arrives.

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why”  by Amanda Ripley

Amanda Ripley, an investigative journalist, writes about the human psychological reaction to disasters. Ripley covered some of the most devastating disasters of our time, and retraces how people reacted. She interviews leading brain scientists, trauma psychologists and other disaster experts. She comes up with the stunning inadequacies of many of our evolutionary responses.

Ripley’s book is not about disaster recovery: It’s about what happens in the midst  of one – before emergency personnel arrive and structure is imposed on the loss. Ripley describes a “survival arc” everyone must travel to get from danger to safety.

If you’ve ever thought about a disaster and possible reactions to it, then you’re on the right track. Ripley starts the survival arc process with the thought “I wonder what I would do if…”

Here’s the survival arc progression, according to Ripley, of a typical reaction to a disaster situation:

  • Denial: This can’t be happening. This isn’t happening to me.
  • Deliberation: We know something is terribly wrong, but don’t know what to do about it.
  • The Decisive Moment: You’ve accepted that you are in danger, deliberated the options and now it is time to take action.

Anybody with a “Be Prepared” mentality hopefully moves quickly through the initial denial phase. We’ll also hope that you have read and studied survival techniques so you will be able to deliberate effectively and move on to the decisive moment phase.

But even if you think you’re prepared mentally for surviving a disaster,  “Unthinkable” is a book you need to read.  You must understand what goes on in your head during a disaster before you can use your tools. You’ll need information and techniques to respond correctly.

Some of that information can come from “The Unthinkable.” The book’s information is a powerful survival tool.

Recommended Reading:
Surviving a Wilderness Emergency
Build the Perfect Survival Kit

When All Hell Breaks Loose: Stuff You Need To Survive When Disaster Strikes
98.6 Degrees: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive

Other Survival Books

*Author Bio*

ABOUT LEON: Since 1991, Leon has been an assistant scoutmaster with Boy Scout Troop 18 in Bend, and a wilderness skills trainer for the Boy Scouts’ Fremont District. Leon earned a second degree black belt in Taekwondo, and competed in his last tournament (sparring and form) at age 49. He is an enthusiastic Bluegrass mandolin picker, two-time finalist in the International Dutch Oven Society’s World Championships, and a freelance writer for the Bulletin newspaper in Bend, Or.

Posted on June 4th, 2010 by Leon in Recommended Readings

Updated: June 6, 2010 — 11:38 pm

The Author


Leon Pantenburg is a wilderness enthusiast, who doesn’t claim expertise as a survivalist. As a newpaperman for three decades, covering search and rescue, sheriff’s departments and outdoor emergencies, Leon learned many people died unnecessarily or escaped miraculously from outdoor emergency situations when simple, common sense may have changed the outcome. Leon now teaches common sense survival techniques to the average person in order to avert potential disasters.

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