1. Do the Next Right Thing
"Debriefings of survivors show repeatedly that they possess the capacity to break down the event they are faced with into small, manageable tasks," writes John Leach, a psychology professor at Lancaster University who has conducted some of the only research on the mental, emotional, and psychological elements of survival. "Each step, each chunk must be as simple as possible.... Simple directed action is the key to regaining normal psychological functioning." This approach can sometimes seem counterintuitive. And yet almost any organized action can help you recover the ability to think clearly and aid in your survival. For example, Pvt. Giles McCoy was aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis when it was torpedoed and sank at the end of World War II, tossing some 900 men into the black of night and the shark-infested Pacific. McCoy, a young Marine, was sucked under the boat and nearly drowned. He surfaced into a two-inch-thick slick of fuel oil, which soaked his life vest and kept him from swimming—although he could see a life raft, he couldn’t reach it. So he tore off his vest and swam underwater, surfacing now and then, gasping, swallowing oil, and vomiting. After getting hoisted onto the raft, he saw a group of miserable young sailors covered in oil and retching. One was "so badly burned that the skin was stripped from his arms," Doug Stanton writes in his gripping account of the event, In Harm’s Way. McCoy’s response to this horrific situation was telling. "He resolved to take action: He would clean his pistol." Irrelevant as that task may sound, it was exactly the right thing to do: organized, directed action. He made each one of the sailors hold a piece of the pistol as he disassembled it. This began the process of letting him think clearly. Forcing your brain to think sequentially—in times of crisis and in day-to-day life—can quiet dangerous emotions.