Whether it’s a movie theater like in Colorado, a school in Oregon or a hotel in Mumbai, the difference between walking into or escaping a violent situation can come down to a matter of seconds. In most cases, the difference between those who survive and those who don’t comes down to a few basic tactics.
One of the best ways to avoid being trapped in a violent situation is to not be there. Developing and using good situational awareness can be the number-one tactic that keeps you alive. Situational awareness is loosely defined as being aware of your environment, surroundings and people at all times.
This means that when walking down a street, try to note the surroundings and who is around you and what they are doing. Before walking into a building, observe who is hanging around, what the building looks like and where ingress and egress routes are located. It’s always important to know multiple ways to get in and out of any dwelling you enter. Playing the what-if game is also a practical tactical training tool that can help you better prepare.
If you find yourself involved in a traumatic situation, the most important survival skill is to remain calm. This is of course easier said than done, but it is absolutely critical to survival. When you are calm, you can think clearly. When you are calm, you won’t make rash decisions or movements. Calmness allows your mind to work through things instead of reacting to them.
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In The Power and Price of Survival: Understanding Resilience, Stress, and Trauma, author Pamela Woll noted that the stress system’s official name is the “autonomic nervous system,” and it has two arms: the fast system (“fight or flight,” or sympathetic nervous system) and the slow system (“rest and reset”, or parasympathetic nervous system). The fast system’s favorite brain part is the survival brain. The survival brain functions like a guard dog—it’s not very sophisticated, but it’s absolutely clear on its mission: protecting you. The slow system does the calming work. But if the threat is extreme or long lasting, the survival brain takes over and refuses to listen to anyone else.
If the threat you’re facing is intense but the situation doesn’t give you a chance to react in the fight-or-flight method your survival brain wants you to produce, the speed-up and slow-down systems can both go into overdrive at once, and you can experience something called a “freeze” response.
If possible, keep moving, as it’s harder to hit a moving target. If a violent incident is unfolding in front of you, try to get out. Look for a way to escape and take it. Don’t delay as you may only get one chance to flee. Alternatively, if there is a way to get to a safe and secure location within a bad situation, do so. This is especially an option in hotels, movie theaters and other large buildings with multiple rooms. Once there, lock yourself in and stay there.
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If you are in a situation that you can’t leave, keep your mind moving. Think of how you could escape. Think of how you can best protect yourself. If it’s a situation where you are being held hostage, listen to what the captors are saying and try to think of ways to stay obscure and/or humanize yourself if they are interacting with you. In cases like that, the more you humanize yourself to a captor, the better your chances of survival.
At the end of the day, many of the situations that you may walk into may be inescapable. You might be stuck and have to do your best to blend in, stay out of the way and ensure you are protecting yourself. The one thing you can continue to do is gather information. This is especially useful if you’re in a situation where the bad guys will leave at some point and law enforcement will have to track them down. The more information you can offer about identities and habits, the better. This evidence gathering will also keep your mind active.
“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another,” said William James. If you don’t have a mindset geared toward survival, no matter the situation, you may be stacking the cards against yourself.
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This article was originally published in the SURVIVOR’S EDGE™ Spring 2016 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.