How survival instincts can help with coronavirus lockdown

AS most of us now embark upon the third week of lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, we’re entering the critical period where many could experience a tipping point in terms of how we personally address the challenges we face.

The psychology of survival dictates that week three/four is when the reality of the situation takes hold – where a new way of life starts to feel normal.

Various accounts from history where shipwreck survivors have been left stranded in remote areas point to a pattern of ‘acceptance of circumstances’ around the third week of isolation – a time when the human brain begins to process a routine and adapt to the circumstances.

A similar pattern has been observed in prisons where restless and agitated inmates start to become more compliant with the wardens after the third week behind bars.

So how can the principles of survival be applied to this unsettling period of lockdown as the world combats the Covid-19 outbreak?

We spoke with military veteran Spencer Locker who, as well as being one of the stars of Channel 4’s popular SAS: Who Dares Wins, is also a Senior Consultant with Trans2 Performance – a leading training company specialising in management coaching and elevating human performance.

Spencer spent 24 years in the Royal Air Force where he qualified as a Resistance To Interrogation Instructor.

We put four key questions to him – each designed to set out how the psychology of survival applies against the backdrop of the current crisis facing the UK and the rest of the world…

Spence 1
Trans2 Performance Senior Consultant Spencer Locker
  1. History tells us that week three or four in an unfamiliar situation is when our brain seems programmed to understand the gravity of a new normality. Is this a critical moment in what looks like a lockdown that could last for at least another two months?

SL: That’s a really good question but before we start to think about an answer, we need to consider a few things.

Firstly, as human beings, we have a lot of things in common but the things that seem to come to the fore are the differences. When we consider our commonalities, we can look at things like Prof Steve Peters’ ‘The Chimp Paradox’. We can be stimulated in similar ways but how that stimulation affects us may be different. Our ‘Fight or Flight’ or ‘Chimp’ reactions may be similar but the way they manifest may be different.

Our unconscious motivators are different though. These are the reasons why we see the world through different eyes and our values do not always align. For some, the gravity of our new normality may have occurred before now and our lives have morphed into this new reality with not much drama.

For others, however, that transition may very well be happening now and it may not be a nice place for them. Some relish change, they love unpredictability and the rules of life may be too constrictive for them. This can be seen as an opportunity to develop new ideas, to be challenged and be creative. For others though this unpredictability can be the catalyst for stress and worry.

The possibility that this could continue for another two months can actually work the other way around. The former, who relished the challenge, may now get bored as the unpredictable is now the norm and therefore predictable whilst the latter who struggled with the new norm now has time and information to make sense of the situation and rationalise everything in their new situation.

Challenge State

  1. We’re entering into a period of psychological acceptance which can be a good or bad thing, dependent upon the circumstances, of course. What can we do to turn this to our advantage?    

SL: We need to rationalise and take control. Through a lot of research we performed during our development of the ’Mental Health Tool Kit For Managers’ (available in the T2 Hub) we came to the conclusion that the one thing above all else that had a negative effect on mental health and perceptions was a perceived lack of control.

This lack of control can influence a ’Threat State’ mindset which makes us focus on failure and the consequences of failure almost eradicating any thoughts of success. This focus will then influence our actions and interactions which will – because of this negative threat state mindset – not be productive.

What we want is a ‘challenge state’ mindset. This is a mindset that acknowledges what might happen if things go wrong but focus on success and achievement. Now, and this is very important, ‘challenge state’ is not totally ignoring failure, it is rationalising it. It’s still there and we can’t ignore it but by the same measure, we cannot allow it to influence our outcomes. Focus on two things – what we want to achieve and how we can achieve it. Directional and instructional.

  1. Despite accepting this ‘new normal’, not everyone is pre-dispositioned to be able to foster a positive mindset. What can people do to overcome negative thoughts and move forward with positivity?    

Really good point. Remember I mentioned unconscious motivators earlier? Without going into too much depth, there are a few of them that will be, as you said, predisposed to a mindset other than positive. I prefer ‘challenge state’ because ‘positive’ suggests ignoring the consequences of failure or negative things. Walt Disney once said: “Life is composed of lights and shadows, and we would be untruthful, insincere, and saccharine if we tried to pretend there were no shadows.

Positive suggests an imbalance and nature won’t have that. We are all a product of our environments and this influences our life view as we develop and mature. You’ve heard of Nature vs Nurture? Why does it have to be exclusively one or the other?

Through our research we have concluded that it is an 80:20 split. The 80% is nurture, formed from the three influences in our formative years: Parental, Educational and Societal.

Those three things influenced us beyond all measure whilst we grew and developed. 80% seems a lot compared to the 20%, but that’s only numerically. That 20% is ’nature’ and it has a MASSIVE effect on the 80%. The larger number may be the influences but the 20% is how we perceive those influences.

If we take a check pace in life, stop for a while, perform an honesty exercise and think about how we are and why we are, we can actually look back and chart whether we are the way we are because of some of our influences and despite others. Were our parents worriers? Did we idolise a teacher at school because they were solution focused? Was our first job with an organisation with a strong blame culture? Was I admonished as a child for making mistakes and that has influenced me into having high standards? We need to be honest with who we are and where we have come from to understand why we are.

  1. As an armed forces veteran, you will be extremely familiar with outdoors and combat survival techniques. What skills from your experience in these fields can be applied to the situation we currently find ourselves in?
Spencer interrogating a candidate in Channel 4’s SAS: Who Dares Wins

It’s an ideal opportunity to explore the three ‘Fs’ that we can all benefit from. Remember the ‘Fight or Flight’? We can add to that ‘Freeze’. Ask ourselves ‘do we have to react in a binary way? Fight or Flight? Why not Freeze? Is the situation really life threatening which requires us to engage or run away? Can we stop, analyse and come to a more informed course of action? Our fight or flight engages within 10 seconds as it should but, in that emotional mindset, are we really going to make the correct decision with the little information we have?

Our pre-frontal cortex gives us the power of logical and rational thought. Unfortunately, it can take a further 40 seconds to access this part of our brain and we need to know this to enable us to freeze and not act upon our emotion, wait until our logic and rationale kicks in and then make better choices.

We have to have an awareness of our own thought processes and reactions. There are issues in life that can interfere with this. If you have watched the interrogation episodes of CH4’s ’SAS: Who Dares Wins’ you will see that we use fatigue to break down the candidates’ capacity for logic and rationale during interrogation. We tire them, they get minimal food and drink, endure sleep deprivation and are kept in stress positions.

How many times have you made a decision that didn’t really work for you when you were tired or hungry? This can be exacerbated by the way we are communicated with as well, how many times have we said something we regret when we engage with someone who may also be fatigued? Conflict in the workplace and in the home? When considering the outdoors – be that bushcraft or wilderness living – we must make the distinction between those and survival.

Compare the styles of Bear Grylls and Ray Mears or Mors Kochansky. While Bear tends to be focussed on avoiding a threat in a fast-moving way, surviving a situation, Ray and Mors (RIP) are more sedentary, focusing on making more informed decisions. Survival is the here and now but essentially reacting to a situation that needs to be addressed to enable survival. Bushcraft is more sustainable – a mindset to promote a prolonged behaviour that doesn’t have to be ‘full throttle’.

For more information about Trans2 Performance, visit the website here…

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