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How to Survive Anything

Stay calm. Gather your wits. We’re going to get through this together. Here, our experts’ guide to navigating life’s scariest perils and everyday frustrations.

How to Survive Anything

1. How to Survive… A Plane Crash
The smallest bump feels like an earthquake at 35,000 feet. But plane crash fatalities are low despite high-profile media coverage – and with a few precautions, you can make them a little lower.

– Forget first class
A Popular Mechanics study of 20 commercial jet crashes with both fatalities and survivors found that passengers seated in the rear cabin (behind the wings) had a 69 per cent chance of survival, compared with just 49 per cent for those in first class. If you fear flying, it’s worth giving up the legroom for peace of mind in the rear cabin.

– Brace yourself
In a 2015 crash simulation, Boeing found that passengers who both wore their seat belts and assumed a brace position (feet flat, head cradled against their knees or the seat in front of them if possible) were likeliest to survive. Seat-belted fliers who did not brace suffered serious head injuries, and those with no seat belts who also didn’t brace died on impact.

– Don’t dally with the mask
During a loss of cabin pressure, the drop in oxygen can knock you unconscious in as little as 20 seconds. Listen to the safety advice of your flight attendants: always secure your oxygen mask before helping others. You can’t help if you can’t breathe.

2. How to Survive… Being Stranded in the Wilderness
As longtime editor of many RD survival stories, Beth Dreher learned a lot about how to stay alive in dire circumstances. Here, she gives us her most important how-tos.

– Find water
As the subjects of my stories know too well, you can last only about four days without water. To ward off dehydration, search for animals, birds (especially songbirds), insects (especially honeybees) and green vegetation, all of which can indicate that water is nearby. Rock crevices may also hold small caches of rainwater.

– Find food
You can survive up to three weeks without food, but a growling stomach will set in much sooner. These items are reliably edible: grass, typha (often called cattails or bulrushes), acorns and pine needles. And if forced to eat berries, this rhyme could save your life: “White and yellow, kill a fellow. Purple and blue, good for you.”

– Brave an animal ambush
We’ve all read about bear and shark attacks. But what about other outdoor ­aggressors? Regardless of species, your best bet is to stand your ground; running can often trigger an animal’s chase mentality, and unless you’re trying to avoid a snake, you’ll likely not run fast enough.

– Signal a rescuer
The subjects of many of my stories are able to attract the attention of rescuers using a reflection or a signal fire or by making a lot of noise. To increase your chances of being discovered, go to an open area on a hilltop, then use a mirror, CD, belt buckle or water bottle to reflect light towards the pilot of a plane or a helicopter overhead. To create white smoke, which is easy for rescuers to see, add green vegetation to your fire.

– Splint a broken bone
The people in the stories I read climb cliffs in remote areas, survive plane crashes, fall hundreds of metres without a parachute – and often break bones. One key to their survival? A splint, which can help reduce pain, prevent further damage and allow you to move to a safer place. Basic rule of splinting: if you break a bone, immobilise the joints above and below it; if your joint is injured, immobilise the bones above and below it. Either way, first pad the injury with something soft like a shirt or socks; next, lay out something hard, like a tent pole or a sturdy stick, that extends past either side of the injury; finally, tie it all in place with duct tape, strips of clothing or a padded rope from your camping gear. Don’t tie it so tightly that you lose circulation. One injury is enough.

3. How to Survive… A Terrorist Attack
Following the Paris attacks of November 2015, the BBC surveyed survival experts and came away with some confidence-building advice.

– Get in the habit of casing the room
In the attack on the Bataclan concert hall, a security guard led a group of people to safety through a fire exit left of the stage. But there won’t always be a guard to help. Make a point of identifying emergency exits for yourself.

– Make yourself smaller
“Where there’s cover from sight, there’s cover from gunfire,” advises Ian Reed, a British military instructor and chief executive of the Formative Group security firm. Hard cover such as a concrete wall is the best option. If there’s no cover available, play dead.

– ‘Run, hide, tell’
In its report on ‘dynamic lockdowns’, the UK government’s advice is to run if there is a safe route out. If you can’t run, hide. If you escape, immediately tell an official what’s happening. Separate from gathering crowds; always assume there’s going to be a secondary action.

– Be a team player
It’s the most efficient way for a group to evacuate and avoid jams. Social psychologist Chris Cocking says most people are likely to try to help one another even in extreme situations – such as the group of people who cooperated to escape the Bataclan via a skylight.

4. How to Survive… The Doctor’s Needle
If you are among the roughly ten per cent of people who fear a loaded syringe, heed these tips:

– Fess up
Tell your doctor how needles make you feel; she might have you lie down to avert wooziness.

– Visit your happy place
Close your eyes, breathe deeply and listen to your favourite song on noise-cancelling headphones.

– Chew the fear away
A piece of gum or sweet treat provides a distraction from the doc.

– Skip the coffee
Caffeine can make you anxious for up to six hours before your procedure.

– Request a security blanket
According to dentist Mark Burhenne, wearing a weighted blanket like the ones used during X-rays can make you feel safer in the chair.

5. How to Survive… A Lay-off
The best thing you can do with your time (besides look for a new job, of course): get moving! According to a happiness study from Canada’s University of Alberta, physical activity increases life satisfaction three times as much as being unemployed reduces it.

6. How to Survive… A Divorce
“Divorce is always good news, because no good marriage has ever ended in one,” says comedian Louis C.K. This hard truth may not make the emotional process any easier to deal with – but these three actions might.

– Write the pain away
Relief can be as simple as free-writing for 20 minutes a day, four days in a row, says James W. Pennebaker, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas. “Across multiple studies, people who engage in expressive writing report feeling happier and less negative than they felt before,” he writes in his book, Expressive Writing: Words That Heal. Per one study, “those who kept their traumas secret went to physicians almost 40 per cent more often than those who openly talked about them.”

– See it through your kids’ eyes
In 2014, Gwyneth Paltrow popularised conscious uncoupling as a byword for a positive, amicable divorce. As doctors Habib Sadeghi and Sherry Sami subsequently wrote on Paltrow’s website, “Children are imitators by nature … If we are to raise a more civilised generation, we must model those behaviours during the good and bad times in our relationships.”

– Launch a project (or a rocket)
Like the jilted New Zealand woman who launched her wedding ring into space on a homemade rocket, or the blogger who got a book deal from devising ‘101 uses for my ex-wife’s wedding dress’, you, too, can channel hard feelings into hard work.

7. How to Survive… An Earworm
It takes only one passing toddler to get ‘It’s a Small World (After All)’ stuck in your head and a whole teeth-gnashing day to get it out. There is a better way to cure what scientists call involuntary musical imagery (aka, the common earworm). In fact, there are two ways:

– Option one – embrace it.
Listen to the song all the way through, at full volume, ideally singing along. The idea is that by confronting your brain with the full version, your earworm will end when the song does.

– Option two – replace it.
Play a different song all the way through, at full volume, in an attempt to chase away your earworm with something more forgettable. In one UK study, the most popular ‘cure’ song was the national anthem, ‘God Save the Queen’. Try humming your own national anthem and see if it has the same magical, restorative properties.

8. How to Survive… An Awkward Conversation
Somehow you’re sitting next to the only person at the party you’ve never met, and the mood is definitely uneasy. How do you draw them out?

– Open with a compliment
The other person will feel a wave of positive feelings, and you will be more likely to remember them later as the person with the ‘nice hat’. A win–win encounter.

– Listen like a hostage negotiator
A common creed of hostage negotiators is ‘talk to me’ – because they’re taught to spend 80 per cent of their time listening and only 20 per cent speaking. Draw your subject out by talking about what they want to talk about, nodding and asking follow-up questions along the way. The more you make your subject feel understood, the more they will enjoy the conversation.

– Have an escape plan
The phrases ‘I won’t keep you’ and ‘Give my regards to [mutual acquaintance]’ are your allies. When the conversation reaches a dead end, employ them.

9. How to Survive… An Ice Cream Headache
A ‘brain freeze’ occurs when nerves in the roof of your mouth tell your brain that it’s too cold; the brain, drama queen that it is, overcompensates by rushing warm blood into your head. How can you tell your big mouth to shut up?

– Thaw the freeze
Replace the cold stimulus with a warm one by filling your mouth with room-temperature water or pressing your tongue against the afflicted area.

– The key to prevention?
Eat slower. As one Canadian doctor found in a study of 145 students from his daughter’s school, kids who gulped down a bowl of ice cream in five seconds or fewer were twice as likely to feel brain freeze as those who took their time.

10. How to Survive… A Sunburn
Remember this: when you’re as red as a beet, make yourself a salad. Freshly cut cucumber cools and soothes the skin, as does the starch from a grated potato or a spritz of apple cider vinegar. Your skin needs vitamins A and D to heal quickly – augment your produce regimen with lots of milk, and find a cool place to veg out.



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