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Survival could depend on your attitude

Experts: Positive outlook key to short, long-term survival

By Lauren Gracco

Hiker Aron Ralston cut off his own arm to free himself after being pinned by an 800-pound boulder.
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Mayo Clinic

(CNN) -- What makes some people pull through, and others give up?

Whether it's a quick reaction needed when a car is submerged in water, a decision to run or act when under attack or exhibiting stamina to cope with a chronic illness, experts say people's overall attitude can determine their response to such scenarios -- thus, their fate.

"Some of it is temperament. Some of it is the person's expectations of being effective in what they do," says Sally Horwatt, a clinical psychologist and president-elect of the Virginia Academy of Clinical Psychologists.

"If you have lived a long time in an impoverished environment with little support, you don't have a lot of expectation of being effective," she adds.

One's psychological and physical wherewithal can help a person survive against the odds, experts say.

"We're all born with the survival instinct. But I think the true survivors, who get out of really bad situations, are ones who have lived in a certain way that directs them towards survival," Laurence Gonzales, the author of "Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why," told CNN in October 2003.

The first response

In an unexpected and imminent crisis, there is sometimes little time to think. While some people quickly take action, Dr. Roger Walsh, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the University of California, Irvine, notes that doesn't always happen.

"A large number of people just kind of freeze," Walsh says. "There's an initial phase among a lot of people [who think] 'this can't really be happening' [and] wait for a cue."

Denial and delay can be deadly, say experts, stressing the importance of taking control of a situation immediately and decisively.

"There's an implicit feeling in some people that unless they are rescued, they're going to die. And then they do," Horwatt says.

Gonzales says this sentiment plays out widely in modern society, with some blaming others and filing lawsuits when something goes wrong rather than taking responsibility for their own actions.

Most survivors, he says, don't think that way. Their take-charge attitude can mean the difference between life and death.

"They think, 'If something bad happens, it doesn't matter whose fault it is, I'm going to take care of it,'" Gonzales says. (CNN Access)

Hiker Aron Ralston represents an enlightening, if gory, example of the merits of a wait-and-see versus a proactive approach.

In 2003, while hiking in the Utah Canyons, his arm became pinned under a boulder. After six days without any rescuers in sight or anything to eat or drink, Ralston freed himself by cutting off part of his arm with a pocket knife.

"I had to make a decision to go forward, not knowing what was going to come. And that was important, that I took action in that moment, overcoming that fear," he told CNN in 2003.

Terry Mercer, a helicopter pilot who had searched for Ralston, said the hiker would not have been spotted -- and would not have survived -- without the impromptu amputation.

"If he hadn't helped himself, we would have never found him," he told CNN's Miles O'Brien the day after the rescue.

Surviving illness

A positive, take-charge attitude is imperative not only in immediate crises, but also when facing longer-term threats, like illnesses, experts say.

Professor Michael Scheier, head of the Department of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University and expert on how people cope with life threatening illnesses, says optimists handle disease differently than pessimists.

"Basically, optimists try to confront the reality of their situation," says Scheier, who works with breast cancer and heart surgery patients. "They try to figure out what they can do to ... deal with the problem at hand."

Scheier uses an example of a person who undergoes bypass surgery to fix blockages, yet the disease remains. An optimist might be more determined to keep their heart disease at bay -- perhaps manifesting this resolve by taking part in cardiac rehab, changing their diet or taking aspirin as a preventive measure.

"Pessimists tend to engage in denial and try to basically avoid coming to grips with their life circumstances' he adds. "While this might be effective in the very short run, in the long run, it's clearly detrimental."

Walsh credits the successes -- be it acts of mental and physical endurance, or fortitude to cope with crises -- with the intensity of the will to survive.

"I think the remarkable discovery is that it's available to all of us," he says. "Most of us fortunately aren't called on to draw on those resources, but it's nice to know that they are there if we ever do need them."

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