THE SURVIVAL BEHAVIOURAL TOOLKIT
A THEORY FOR BUILDING RESILIENCE AND SELF-WORTH
I’ve written a short story below which I believe it is a reflection of what is happening in our modern society today. Naturally for our mammalian brains, more and more of us are striving for a protected and sheltered life, away from adversity and challenge. But in doing so, we are putting our mental health at risk, because the practice of overcoming challenges and adversity is what gives you the behavioural toolkit to survive in life. As we become more sedentary, screen facing and nature averse, we increase the chances of mental health problems developing because we are not exposing ourselves to overcoming challenges or risk.
Let me explain this further by telling a story of two hunter gatherers in a forest.
The first hunter gatherer was born into a family where there was very little pressure put on him. Even as he entered into his teens, he was given food when he needed, he had his shelter built for him and watched his parents doing the hunting rather than getting involved. He lived a very sheltered and relaxed life, he tend to get what he wanted.
The second hunter gatherer was born into tougher circumstances, from an early age she had to help her parents find and hunt food, build shelter and learn how to build bow-and-arrows. Her parents would ask her to do some of these tasks alone because they had to look after the other children. She didn’t have much help so had to discover what to do herself, often getting frustrated but ultimately finding a way through in order to help her family.
One fateful day, a huge storm came along and all the families and children were dispersed. The environment was unrecognisable and the hunter gatherers were suddenly plunged into an entirely unexperienced situation.
The first hunter gatherer wakes up, looks around him and screams for his parents. He cries and when he realises they are not coming. He is hungry and initially tries to find food but gets scared by some of the bugs and animals around so begins to get fearful and anxious, causing him to retreat even further. He knows that there are some animals to be fearful of, but because his parents always dealt with them, he has little knowledge of what was safe and what should be avoided. It begins to rain so he seeks shelter, but doesn’t know how to gather the right materials, so he tries to find them but his frustration increases as he keeps making mistake after mistake. He gets angry at himself because things aren’t working and starts getting very stressed which in turn makes it harder for him to cope.
This pattern repeats itself again and again, day by day, he can’t sleep well because he can often hear animals moving in the bush and doesn’t know how to deal with them. Even worse, the weather looks like it’s brewing another storm and he gets even more scared, he wonders how he will cope when he is already on a knife edge. Time passes by, and the health of the boy both physically and mentally begins to dwindle…he’s struggling to survive.
The second gatherer wakes up, looks around her and screams for her parents. She cries when she realises they are not coming but a long while after she stabilises herself and knows she has to work out what to do next. Even though she is petrified, alone and has nothing with her, she has learnt in previous experiences that panicking and worrying are not useful, so she decides that her first priority is to build shelter. Her hunger pains continue to rise, but if she can build shelter, then she can begin to start gathering food and protect it from other animals. She learnt this when she once got lost from her parents and had to protect herself from the snow.
Off she goes, into the bush, gathering branches so she can begin thatching a roof and creating a suspended shelter. She knows that having a shelter on the ground for more than one day is not going to work so she wants to build something between trees. She doesn’t have a knife but for now she can rely on knots she has learnt to help her secure the shelter. She also knows which woods will provide the right string and which will provide the best base for her to sleep on.
As she is gathering twigs she finds a sharp flint stone, one that she retains for using to make fire, she feels pleased. She is very tired, but she has learnt that this tiredness will pass at some point and she knows she has a mission to complete. After 6 hours of hard labour, she has built a shelter in the trees, covered by evergreens where she can rest. She feels a huge sense of euphoria and strength, even though she hasn’t eaten anything or rested, tears even fill her eyes. She lies in bed and manages to sleep a few hours, still feeling apprehensive but she knows if she can apply her mind like she did today then there is a chance she will be OK. She feels a sense of connection to the earth that has provided materials to protect her overnight, she feels blessed even though she may not be with her family, she screams like a wolf and feels alive.
The first gatherer struggled indefinitely to stay alive, whereas the second flourished over time.
THE SURVIVAL BEHAVIOURAL TOOLKIT
The reason hunter gatherer two was able to survive was because she had two elements that number one didn’t have. Some form of practical experience, and most importantly the patience and resilience to cope under pressure.
Her parents needed her to act responsibly and learn how to help the family so she had years of practical ‘learn by doing’ experience as well as the behaviours that come as part of this experience, what I call ‘survival behaviours’. Examples of these are, courage, resilience, determination, patience etc…and these are the crucial part of this theory. She was patient and resilient because she had continually practiced failing and recovering throughout her childhood whilst learning to gather food, build shelter and protect her family.
We don’t live habitually as hunter gatherers anymore, but the element I believe is missing in modern life that helps us flourish are the ‘survival behaviours’. When one practices these regularly, they have the behavioural toolkit to cope with life, no matter what is thrown their way. Modern life discourages the practice of these behaviours, through the ever increasing propensity to over-protect our loved ones and in doing so reduce challenges that help them flourish throughout their lives.
To illustrate this further , let’s take an example of building the shelter. On a practical level, she is learning to gather different types of woods, which in turn she will learn the names, the smells, the purpose as she attempts to practice using them to build a shelter. She will go through rounds and rounds of making mistakes, sometimes building something marvellous, only to rest in it and it falls apart. She will then go back and work out what went wrong. She is constantly practicing failure recovery and before she knows it, she has an incredible knowledge of the woodland, her nose is that trained that it could smell the woods without needing to look. This all demonstrates the practical skills. On a behavioural level, she has learnt patience in being able to persist through the failure, courage in stepping into the forest where there are bugs and animals that she doesn’t know about, and resilience in having the mental stamina to not get discouraged.
The ‘survival behavioural toolkit’ she has learnt and practiced is what increases her chance of her survival and fundamentally her self-worth, because she knows she has the skills inside. The magic occurs when a situation comes along that is different from building a shelter, she is then able to use her behavioural toolkit to cope with new challenges. She can be patient, resilient and brave, because she’s had recent practice doing that. This in turn increases her overall wellbeing as she feels strong and that she can cope with what life chucks at her.
"The magic occurs when a situation comes along that is different from building a shelter, she is then able to use her behavioural toolkit to cope with new challenges."
The reason hunter gatherer one could barely survive was because his whole life he was protected from most practical experiences and specifically from failing. In doing so, he was not able to ever learn how to build, kill, or make fire, and in the process never learnt courage, patience or bravery. So when a new situation arose in his life, he didn’t have the ‘survival behaviours’ to accompany the practical skills and therefore his survival was severely endangered.
These survival behaviours are critical for us being able to cope with life’s ups and downs, whether that be deaths of loved ones, financial issues, relationship problems, work issues, life in general, whether we think it or not, our life is still like living in a jungle.
I believe that mental health problems are exacerbated by the over-protection from risk we place upon ourselves and loved ones. If we do not have a forum to practice learning behaviours, then we don’t have the resilience to cope with life.
To be continued...