Megan Hine is one of the planet's foremost experts on survival, a Jöttnar Pro Team member and author of Mind of a Survivor. Here she draws on her experience of the world's most inhospitable places, to give a lesson in resilience.
The heat rebounded from the dark rocks, intense and stifling. No air moved around us. Oppressive & uncomfortable; the feeling of the body slowly coming to the boil, every movement encountered resistance as if the very world around us tried to tether us to the spot. The sun pounded down on us, drawing water from the body, stealing the life blood from us.
Two weeks into filming a survival show, I had been dropped out in the Namibian wilderness with a contributor being filmed to survive on what we could source in the desert and bush. I carried a machete, knife, radio, satellite phone and medical pack (just in case). The challenge was compounded by the fact we needed to make distance on foot each day as well. As much as possible we travelled in the cool of the morning, rested up in the heat of the when the sun was directly overhead and then carried on once the sun had dropped in the sky. As we travelled we operated as opportunists, catching sunbathing snakes unaware on the rocks. Lizards and crickets were a staple, their tiny bodies a welcome source of protein.
“We see stress and anxiety as negative things, whereas, in actual fact they were and are survival mechanisms”
Part of our journey crossed the Brandberg massif as we headed for the coast. This is an incredible geological feature, a granitic intrusion which forms a dome shape rising out of the plains below. It is also an area of spiritual significance to the local San bushman tribes. Tucked away in the nooks and crevices, cave paintings can be found depicting the incredible lives of this hunter-gatherer peoples over the ages. Neither my participant nor I had eaten anything other than what we had foraged and hunted in the two weeks we had been out on the ground. We were sleeping on the sandy floor of the desert next to the heat of the fire we built every evening. The desert reached temperatures of 45 degrees during the day but at night would drop to around 10 degrees. As our bodies became increasingly depleted of energy, the fire became central to survival, enabling us to cook any meat we sourced, treat the elusive water we tracked down, provide vital heat at night and even to keep wild animals away such as predatory lions. I could tell you tales of these lions stalking us at night, of hyenas, of black mamba snakes hanging in trees, waiting to drop on their prey. But this story is about doing what it takes to survive and why experiences in the wilderness are transferable to everyday life.
I always find it fascinating to follow comments on social media when survival shows like ‘The Island’ are airing. It is so easy to judge the behaviour and decisions of others from the comfort of one’s armchair. The reality is that the viewer only sees a tiny snapshot of what the participants are going through on a daily basis. Remember, an episode often covers several days of what the participant has been through. If there is more than one participant then you only see each person for a fraction of their adventure, and most likely, only the highlights. Only the most exciting parts are shown, the mundane parts the viewer never gets to see because it is too ‘boring’ for the modern TV audience who require constant action and intrigue.
The reality; true survival is unglamorous, highly uncomfortable and makes boring TV. This is because when the body goes into survival mode, where it is deprived of the very basic human needs - food, water, shelter and sleep - every cell of the body fights for survival and a huge part of this is in conserving energy. The mind has to constantly battle the need to keep moving against the necessity of conserving energy by not moving at all. Hence, you often see participants sitting around not doing anything, whereas in reality they are doing a huge amount to further their chances of survival by saving precious energy.
I am a firm believer that resilience, the ability to rebound from hardship and trying times is nurtured by exposure to lots of different experiences. The more challenges and obstacles we overcome, the more resilient we become. The wilderness, I believe, is the perfect arena for training this.
Resilience can be broken down into various traits such as acceptance, empathy, curiosity, creativity and intuition. We are all born with the potential to develop these traits. Our upbringing, however, plays a large part in the development of them. A sheltered upbringing does not always allow for this emotional growth. This is where I believe the outdoors can teach lessons that can be taken into everyday life. Particularly when related to the management of stress and anxiety.
We see stress and anxiety as negative things, whereas, in actual fact they were and are survival mechanisms. For our caveman ancestors living in a world where they were prey to large predators and dealt with warring neighbours, stress was a mechanism to alert the body to something being wrong in the environment around it and prepare it to run or fight. The stress response triggers adrenalin and other chemicals to flood the body readying it for this. The immune system is activated in case of injury and blood is pulled from its various jobs around the body and pumped into the muscles readying them for action. This was designed within the human body to be a short sharp, emergency response and once the threat passed, would return itself to a state of equilibrium.
This response is still hardwired into us today. The issue is that it is a primitive mechanism and lacks the intelligence to distinguish between life and death threats and more minor or modern issues. For example, the body initiates the same response when stalked by a lion as when seeing your friends' perfect lives on social media (fear of missing out is a real thing). We are surrounded now by constant stimuli, which stresses us on an emotional and physical level and the body does not have time to return to equilibrium. What follows is chronic stress, leading to health issues such as stomach problems, depression, anxiety and autoimmune diseases.
“We made it to Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, weather worn, and with dirt ingrained in our skin. We may have been lean and gaunt, our bodies may have looked frail and malnourished but our minds were not”
Being outside not only removes us from many of these stimuli but it allows us to move - a natural way of shifting adrenalin and other chemicals around the body and flushing them out. Watch your dog next time it is afraid or stressed. Once the stress is over, more often than not it will then run around, removing the excess energy from the system. Movement encourages endorphins, the happy chemical to be released. But more than this, playing outside on whatever level you perform, whether as a world class athlete or amateur climber, encourages growth of the traits of resilience. It encourages individuals to take ownership and face the consequences of their actions. You learn to trust your body and your mind and listen when it tells you something is wrong. It teaches you to logically control your emotions and put things that matter into perspective. In the wilderness, we find a canvas to create, to imagine, to express ourselves and explore cause and effect and ultimately find ourselves.
My participant and I made it to Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, weather worn, and with dirt ingrained in our skin. We may have been lean and gaunt, our bodies may have looked frail and malnourished but our minds were not. They were full of trust; in ourselves, in each other and the knowledge of perspective. The lessons taught and learnt only through exposure to hardship. But lessons that can be applied and transferred to everyday life.
Megan is the author of Mind of a Survivor.