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We as humans consider ourselves most resilient. We seem to be known for withstanding the worst traumas and disasters, both natural and man-made. But do we all come out of trauma considering ourselves stronger than we were before? What aides in a better survival chance? How much control do we have in survival situations? To answer these questions, we must examine what survivors go through mentally when facing something disastrous head-on.We are all different, each and every one of us has experienced different things with different people. Every moment leading up to the disaster in which someone survives or doesn’t contribute to that person’s mentality. Some people have a stronger grip on optimism than others; maybe the next guy doesn’t. Is there a certain mentality that will ensure someone’s survival? What do we really have control over when fear has already crept into the cracks of our minds?For example, we can learn a great deal from the characters in In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick during the tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. This book tells all the details of a gruesome survival of the Whaleship Essex of Nantucket. The ship and its men are taunted by a great sperm whale, leading them to a story of shipwreck and survival. The main characters that were left after the ship was destroyed huddled in small whaleboats, with only a few provisions and each other. The most prominent characters were Owen Chase, Captain George Pollard, and young Thomas Nickerson. Companionship is another factor that aided them in their survival. “A person’s ability to survive a longer-term disaster will depend on sustaining motivation to cope and to adapt to new, often hostile, environments” (Robinson/Bridges). Just knowing that the people around you are experiencing the same thing can become something comforting. This comfort helps a person cope with the situation at hand. Certain hormones are secreted when people are forced into “survival mode”, such as adrenaline and cortisol. “…the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and the more slowly responding hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis” (Robinson/Bridges) are what increase these hormones. Despite this reaction to a threat, Robinson and Bridges also state that these responses can have a negative influence on survival rate since these responses can have a negative effect on cognitive responses. Though “people differ in their fear response to danger and threat,” (Whitbourne) these cognitive functions seem to be affected in long-term survival situations in many cases. Fear and resilience have a connection to cognitive capacity in our brains. “Resilience to extreme stress entails the ability to avoid excessive overgeneralized fear responses and to enhance favorable reconsolidation and extinction processes related to fear memories” (Gang, et al., 2013). Human response to fear is often the counterpart of resilience. These responses go off like lights in your brain, without notice. When someone is exposed to a threat or stressor in situations that drive people to survive, the negatively affected regions of your cognitive responses may pressurize them to their breaking point causing even more unknown backlash. Cognitive parts that can create opposition to memory and attention. This can cause failure; or in some cases, success to some extent. The Essex crew fell low on provisions. Whaleboats separated and floated back—but soon enough, they stayed separated. The men became dreadfully dehydrated, “Still to come… were the agonies of a mouth that has ceased to generate saliva… The tongue hardens… Speech becomes impossible… begin to weep tears of blood… even breathing becomes difficult” (Philbrick 127). The sun felt like it was scorching them by the seconds and drawing in every drop of moisture from their barely breathing bodies; this was “living death” (Philbrick 127). The critical dehydration and risen temperatures that these men were experiencing are said to also “lead to reductions in cognitive performance,” in studies shown (Robinson/Bridges). The men of the Essex were now in a situation of adapting. These men did what many others would if they put in a position of survival as the crew was—although many will say that they could never do what the crew did. Trying their best not to sabotage their own moral compasses, they find their last resort. This point of no return is when the crew members resorted to cannibalism in hope of better chances at survival. Yes, the push towards cannibalism kept them breathing until rescue. But now we raise the question of how survivors of such tribulation are able to regain their sanity—their normality. The key factor of this is resilience. Resilience refers to the capability to adjust to life’s unexpected curveballs—whether this renders stress and fear in common worries or when a rare calamity causes psychological afflictions. Psychological resilience is instigated by how an individual copes with extremities. Effective coping with high-stress situations provides a gateway to liberate negative thoughts, substituting positive introspections instead. Resilience is often confused with recovery, as Bonanno says. Another common misconception of resilience is “the belief that resilience must be rare and found only in exceptionally healthy people,” because “it reflects the ability to maintain a stable equilibrium” (Bonanno). The aura of resilience is regularly misunderstood and misinterpreted. For instance, many people believe that traumatic or near-death experiences will lead to PTSD and other repercussions of pronounced anguish—yet, many analysts have noted otherwise. Review about studies regarding loss, violence, or life-threatening encounters “clearly indicates that the vast majority of individuals exposed to such events do not exhibit chronic symptom profiles and …   in some cases, the majority show the type of healthy functioning suggestive of the resilience trajectory” (Bonanno). This research theorizes that resilience is recurrent and standard in most humans. Analysis shows “roughly 50%–60% of the U.S. population is exposed to traumatic stress but only 5%–10% develop PTSD” (Bonanno). In relation to the Essex crew, of the men that survived, probably all manifested some sort of resilient response due to their troubled affairs.The acknowledgment of vulnerability when meeting absolute fear itself can lead anyone down a path of resilience. A substantial part of survival is how an individual utilizes the fear, stress, and trauma that is brought about unexpectedly. Resilience is undeniably shown in In the Heart of the Sea when all eight of the survivors went to sea again within only months of their homecoming. “… after all that he had suffered, how could he dare go to sea again” (Philbrick 208)—a question answered by human resilience. The truth in whether one is resilient or not is related to sense of self, which these survivors of the Essex possessed. These men also took pride in their morals—Pollard and Chase always in a feud vis-à-vis their moral compasses, and which one pointed where. “The existence of a moral compass or an internal belief system guiding values and ethics is commonly shared among resilient individuals” (Gang, et al., 2013). Exhibiting a personal code of ethics was also a quality that prepped resilience. In addition, bearing a “purpose in life was a key factor linked to resilience in a study of 259 primary care patients with a history of exposure to a range of severe traumatic events” (Gang, et al., 2013). This sturdy notion of knowing your purpose is what all the survivors had—they all knew that there would be a gap that couldn’t be bridged for someone else if they didn’t survive. adaptSo, how can someone take preventative measures to lessen the chance of negative effects on vital cognitive functions?—or increase the chances of having a facet of resilience at the right time? Truth is, we can’t really. The only helpful aide would be to train for a disaster, or search for your sense of purpose and hold on to it. Realistically speaking, when is someone able to prepare themselves mentally and physically for something as tragic as the story of the Essex? We just have to trust in ourselves to —trus when facing off with feart our brains, and our instincts. What more can we expect from ourselves? Works CitedBonanno, George A. Loss, Trauma, and Human Resilience: Have We Underestimated the Human Capacity to Thrive After Extremely Aversive Events? American Psychologist, Jan. 2004.Robinson, Sarita, and Nikola Bridges. “Survival – Mind and Brain.” Survival – Mind and Brain | The Psychologist, Jan. 2011, thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-24/edition-1/survival-%E2%80%93-mind-and-brain.Whitbourne, Susan Krauss. “What Does It Take to Survive Emotionally After a Disaster?” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 12 Sept. 2017, www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201709/what-does-it-take-survive-emotionally-after-disaster.Wu, Gang, et al. “Understanding Resilience.” Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, Frontiers Media S.A., 15 Feb. 2013, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3573269/.Philbrick, Nathaniel. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. Penguin Books, 2000.


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