This story is adapted from How to Survive: Self-Reliance in Extreme Circumstances, by John Hudson, the British military’s chief survival instructor.
Dale Zelko looked down over his right shoulder through the cockpit window and saw the dark sky suddenly flare as two surface-to-air missiles tore up towards him through the low cloud over Belgrade.
This wasn’t supposed to happen.
Dale was a US Air Force fighter pilot sitting in an F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter—the black angular ones that look like a UFO—a jet that was considered by most people at the time to be pretty much invulnerable. Dale’s aircraft was called a stealth fighter because it was “low-observable,” but that doesn’t mean it was invisible. It was black and flew at night, it was angular in shape to make radar waves bounce off in ways that are harder to detect, its jet engines were deep inside and their exhausts were shrouded to dissipate noise and heat. Its bombs were carried inside its fuselage to stop them from reflecting radar waves. Even the jet’s black paint was specially mixed to absorb radar energy and reduce its on-screen signature. Hundreds of billions of dollars of cutting-edge science had gone into making sure that no stealth fighter had ever been shot down by an enemy.
And yet at that moment, as he watched the missiles arc upwards, Dale realized that his jet was about to have the dubious distinction of being the first.
The missiles weighed a ton each, were six meters long, with a bright orange flame spewing grey smoke, traveling at three times the speed of sound. The first one flew straight over the top of him, close enough that its shockwave buffeted his jet. He remembers being surprised that it didn’t go off—surface-to-air missiles like those are fitted with a proximity fuse that detonates their 60 kilogram explosive warhead when they get close to their targets, peppering them with small shards of metal shrapnel. He looked back, saw the next one and thought, It’s going to run right into me.
The force of the impact was so violent that Dale’s jet flipped over and its nose pitched down simultaneously, throwing him up in his seat straps so that he was pushing up against the cockpit roof and enduring an incredible negative g-force of 7; seven times the force of gravity, in the wrong direction. As his aircraft dived out of his control, he needed to pull the ejection-seat handle that would rocket him out of it within the next couple of seconds, if he didn’t want to spear into the ground at 500 mph.
In life, we all have to deal with unexpected events. Not many of us will find ourselves fired out of a jet thousands of feet above the Earth, but in our professional and personal lives, it will often be how we respond to the unexpected that will most define us. However, perfectly understandably, most people spend very little time thinking about failure, disaster and worst-case scenarios. Indeed, the unexpected is by definition the thing you haven’t planned for. We see this time and time again in the most extreme of circumstances. While we can’t predict what events we’ll find ourselves in—be they natural disasters like earthquakes, or man-made catastrophes like violent attacks—what we do know is that our human behavior in difficult situations tends to follow distinct patterns. These patterns always occur, and they have been observed in studies when random groups of people are subjected to the same stressors. Analyses of these studies reveal not only what proportion of us are likely to respond appropriately—by which I mean doing something to aid survival—during the heat of a “disaster,” and therefore live to tell the tale, but also what the hazards or barriers are to ‘coping’ after the dust has settled.
Roughly speaking, we all fall into one of three groups during a dynamic crisis event. A few people will know what to do (roughly one in 10), the vast majority of us will not know what to do—we’ll be stunned—and a minority of people will react badly. Whether you’re in the top, middle or bottom group, we are all liable to behave in those ways unless we retrain ourselves. But this retraining isn’t the mammoth task you might think.
By looking at the ways in which Dale Zelko’s preparation and mindset allowed him to react appropriately to this most unexpected of events, we can understand how we all have the capacity to cope better, and gain insight into the simple things that we can do to improve how we respond.
The first thing to keep in mind is that new responses are much slower to present themselves than ones we’ve already prepared. The second is that we don’t make the best decisions when we feel under threat.
And it’s not just your brain that is affected. The nerves that radiate out from your spinal cord go all over your body, transmitting information about you and the world around you to and from your brain and organs. When we are in dangerous situations, like being too close to a predator (or a bathrobe that looks like one), part of this network, the catchily titled “sympathetic autonomic nervous system,” kicks in.
You’ve probably heard of it before as the “fight, flight or freeze” reaction. It prepares your body for immediate action by dilating your pupils to capture more information visually, and dilating the bronchia in your lungs, which increases your intake of oxygen. It accelerates your heart rate to push more oxygen-rich blood to your muscles, makes you sweat to prevent overheating, and ups the secretion of adrenaline. It also stops your body from wasting energy on functions that won’t be needed in an emergency—it inhibits digestion, reduces saliva production, and stops other “secondary” muscle functions, notably in the bladder and bowels.
It’s also the reason behind the dry mouth and butterflies that you feel when you’re confronting something stressful, like a job interview, or giving an important presentation. We only have one set of biological processes to deal with stress and they evolved to deal with short, sharp moments of crisis before fading out when we move to safety. Unfortunately, in today’s world, we are often receiving tiny bursts of constant stress, whether they’re from the tyranny of the email inbox on our smartphone or rolling news. It’s also important to keep in mind that the fast system can be pretty unreliable. Much in the same way that the intruder isn’t there, often a perceived threat isn’t real. That email from a colleague might be passive–aggressive or it might just be the equivalent of a bathrobe over a chair. Many of us now live in a wash of constant low-level stress, which is bad for our bodies but also bad for our ability to make good decisions.
If you ever feel the symptoms of “panic” welling up in your chest during your day-to-day stuff—maybe a tight deadline is making you feel really anxious at the expense of getting your task done—try putting your free hand on the top of your stomach just below your ribs. Close your eyes to concentrate and close your mouth so that you’re only breathing through your nose. As you breathe in, feel your stomach area expand under your hand. Try to breathe in and out slowly to a count of four; four in, four out, feeling your stomach rise and fall. This slow, deep breathing rebalances the amounts of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood and disengages the primitive fight or flight response. A calm, even breathing rhythm is the key and it can take a few minutes to achieve, but you should find that your heart rate gets back to normal and you start to feel better. Once you get good at it you can try “triangular breathing,” where you hold the inhale for another count of four before you exhale. Try triangular breathing lying down if you find it hard to get to sleep.
What you’re doing is tricking your brain into engaging the opposite response to the fight, flight or freeze one (the sympathetic autonomic nervous system). The opposite response you want to switch on, the parasympathetic autonomic nervous system, is best known as the “rest and digest” response. So the slow and steady breathing gradually puts the influential chemicals in your system back into a calmer balance.
Breathing techniques like this are brilliant because they can be applied pretty much anywhere, in situations from disasters to public speaking. Another great technique for hacking into the rest and digest response is to chew gum. Research by survival psychologist Sarita Robinson has found that chewing can engage the rest and digest response, lowering your stress-chemical levels and un-fogging your brain. It’s one I’ve instinctively employed for years, like when I’m driving in heavy traffic or late at night, and now there’s some survival world research to back it up too.
What this means is that, if we want to make better decisions, we need to try and do two things: 1) try and make as much room in our rational brain as possible and 2) try and reprogram the brain out of the wrong shortcuts it takes when it feels under threat from a new situation.
Whenever your body is working in under-threat mode, your adrenal glands also release the stress hormone cortisol to temporarily increase energy production. One of cortisol’s other effects is to inhibit the laying down of new memories by your brain’s hippocampus, which explains why even though he must have done so, Dale Zelko has no memory of pulling the emergency eject handle in his stricken stealth fighter. (Your memory creation is similarly inhibited if your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) gets above 0.2 per cent, hence the patchy plotlines of any really boozy night out.)
No matter how hard Dale tries, his memory of it is missing, yet it happened. The next thing he remembers is sitting in the ejection seat, watching his cockpit recede into the night below him, the many warning lights blinking in reds and yellows. That he was able to do all this so instinctively when it mattered is because he had repeatedly drilled what to do in the event of emergency, both back on the ground and, importantly, in his head, until it didn’t involve producing a new response on race day.
This is why all military aircrews get specialist training for worst-case scenarios, aka “survival training,” whether they like it or not—because, one day, that training check may need to be cashed in. And when that day comes, you really don’t want to be relying on the slow parts of your brain to come up with every response. So we survival instructors drag our students behind boats at sea in their parachute harnesses, to simulate being blown along after ejection over water, and to practice the drills needed to avoid drowning. We drop them off by helicopter in the dead of night and have them hunted by tracker teams, to practice the skills needed to avoid capture in hostile territory. Any type of training is easiest to remember if it’s recent but, when push comes to shove, the very fact that you’ve done some training, even if it was a long time ago, can pay off. We remember actions much better if we’ve physically done them—rather than just thought, heard or read about them—and the more times we practice the actions, the more deeply they get ingrained in our brains.
As part of the same learning process, and well before any survival-specific environmental training takes place, military aircrew like Dale Zelko are trained in how to deal with aircraft emergencies. On-board emergencies come in all shapes and sizes, and how to respond to them is learned by heart. Aircraft emergency drills are conducted in a very specific sequence and there is no ambiguity about content or order. That’s because we don’t want to have to think about it—we practice it again and again on the ground until it’s second nature in the air. Baby Royal Air Force pilots even get "cardboard cockpits" so that they can practice their emergency drills back at their pit during downtime. These mock-ups are printed out life-size, to enable muscle movements and hand gestures to be repeated as "touch-drills" until they become instinctive.
Just in case the trainee pilot is flying solo and blanks when the emergency happens, all of the “what-to-do” information is immediately available in their Flight Reference Cards. These cards are a simple, two-sided flip-book of essential drills, which are designed to fit in their flying suit pocket and be carried at all times. To make the emergency stuff easy to find, it occupies one side of each reference card and is colored bright red. This system is so effective that other branches of the armed forces have adopted it—the ones used by soldiers for ground emergencies are called “flap sheets.”
For Dale, this involved drilling himself until ejecting became a reflex. Now we can’t prepare exactly as he did (there is no ejector seat handle in most of our lives) but the fundamental principle is the same. We might not be able to prepare exactly for the sorts of unexpected situations we’ll experience in everyday life, but to make better decisions we need to have pre-loaded our system with comparable ideas before our equivalent of seeing the flash, feeling the earth shake, hearing the bang, or smelling the smoke.
A very simple thing you can do to improve how you might respond under pressure is to think about the sorts of things that might throw a spanner in the works in a given scenario. If you’re on your way to make a crucial presentation, think about what the worst question you could be asked might be. What if your laptop won’t connect to the screen? What if the train is cancelled, the motorway is solid with traffic? Don’t just think about how awful those things would be—plan how you would respond to them.
Imagine your next encounter with your boss. Pre-think the difficult question that they are most likely to ask you when they probe whatever task you’re dealing with for them. You probably know them well enough to gauge what their motivations are in doing this. They will have an opinion about your answer to their question, which tends to be expressed as another question, so have the answers to that pre-prepared too. If you can come up with solid reactions to the next thing they’ll ask, by “What if . . .” thinking that too, you won’t get caught on the hop. Answering it all with confidence is half the battle, and you gain that by not being surprised into freezing.
Once again, this doesn’t mean simply thinking over and over again Oh no, what if it all goes wrong? Think of specific scenarios, with specific responses. Get it down on paper. The simplest way you can free up more space for the new thoughts you need to have is to outsource those you can to paper. Make your own flap sheet. If it’s in your head, it’s taking up space. Draw a diagram of your role in a project with five or so essential parts to it. What do you do if any one of them goes wrong? Try adding a variety of responses and imagining how they might play out. By increasing the number of scenarios you think about, math dictates that the number of truly unexpected events gets smaller. Unless you work somewhere where you’re reinventing the wheel every time, you’ll build up a basic store of scenarios and responses without them needing to have actually happened. This will never replace the value of first-hand experience, but by taking steps to disaster-proof the future, you’re actually decreasing the chance of disaster. In fact, you’re reframing things entirely, so that it’s just an alternate scenario.
Visualizing success is all very well and good and should certainly be part of what we do, but it’s only by imagining the unexpected that we begin the process of responding more quickly and decisively should it occur.
Excerpted from How to Survive: Self-Reliance in Extreme Circumstances. Copyright © 2020, 2019 John Hudson. Reproduced by permission of The Countryman Press, a Division of W.W. Norton & Company. All rights reserved.
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