Lost in the Wild
by Sarosh Motivala, PhD
In his excellent book Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzalez writes about his studies on the experience of being lost in the wild. Hikers who lose their way experience something called woods shock; Gonzalez writes “everyone who dies (in the woods) dies of confusion. There is a destructive synergy...including exhaustion, dehydration, hypothermia, anxiety, hunger, injury.”
Woods shock is the catastrophic reaction people can have when they grapple with being lost. When their mental maps of their location do not match with their physical environment and when the internal tussle between reason and emotion no longer work in accord, but instead “become like two swimmers, dragging each other down.” In its worst cases, Woods shock can lead to death.
Gonzales recounts stories of experienced hikers doing inexplicable things like not making a fire, misreading landmarks, discarding backpacks when lost. Why? Why when our reasoning faculties are needed most, do they sometime abandon us?
The roots of woods shock start with becoming disoriented; you lose the connection between your surroundings and your internal, mental map of your location. But plenty can happen between this disorientation and full blown woods shock. “Being lost is not a location, but a transformation” Gonzalez writes. He outlines it as follows a few poor mental strategies we use to handle being lost. A perversion in the “call to action” drives a series of mental strategies that transform being lost into being injured, making poor decisions, being hopeless. Initially a refusal to admit you are lost and a tendency to act out “convincing oneself that you are ok” leads to urgently forging onward. This denial can help us cope with the rising panic, but it eventually peters out and may even make us more disoriented. So we move on to another approach - a massive action strategy. The emergency is realized, but the response is frenetic massive action (running, fast walking). This keeps the rising panic at bay, providing a sense that “I’m on this”, but it burns precious energy and can make you vulnerable to fast but poor decision making and even physical injury (slipping, falling). After burning up your physical energy, you might switch to a cognitive strategy. Gonzalez describes it as frenetic orienting. A panicked attempt to mentally figure out where you are. The mental velocity of this state does not lend itself to accuracy, insights and realizations about where you are and what you need to do. If anything, it promotes poor decision making. It is important in these moments, to work your way to a place of acceptance/resignation AND determination. It’s a delicate balance. But important to survive.
When a person realizes they are stuck, Gonzales describes “the split”. In example after example of mountain climbers, sailors, fighter pilots lost in the wild, and I would add those that struggle with panic attacks, Gonzales writes that a person starts to split into two people - one that perceives reality and is coldly rational, and another that is having “waves of hot emotion”. This is a common experience in panic attacks - one part of my mind is freaking out, the other is rational. Understanding this split, accepting it, and working to maintain a balance between these two subjective experiences - is vital. Gonzales writes about climber Joe Simpson and his partner Simon Yates as they were descending the summer of Siula Grande, a 21,000 foot peak in the Peruvian Andes. Simpson broke his leg on the climb down. Simpson and Yates worked together to help Simpson, but both men knew that Simpson was in ALOT of trouble. Regarding the balance of his split mind, the balance between rational and emotional, Simpson writes in his book _Touching the Void_, “It felt as if I was holding something terrifyingly fragile and precious.”
Gonzales quotes from the diary of a sailor, Steve Callahan, who was on a solo sailing trip across the Atlantic when his boat collided with a whale and began to sink. Callahan wrote “a myriad of conversations and debates flash through my mind, as if a group of men are chattering with my skull. Some joke…others stoke the furnace of fear…I must be careful. I fight blind panic: I do not want the power from my pumping adrenaline to lead to confused and counterproductive activity. I do not want to sit frozen in fear until the end comes. Focus, I tell myself.”
Gonzales then writes that Callahan handled the split with self-talk - enacting a sense of discipline. Callahan later wrote, “When I am in danger or injured, my emotional self feels fear and my physical self feels pain. I instinctively rely on my rational self to take command over the fear and pain.” This to me is, is a vital, beautiful statement to remind ourselves of when the panic storm is raging.