How to Survive Anything

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

By Chitra Subramanyam, Pallavi Shankar and Brandon Specktor Updated: Dec 28, 2018 10:36:09 IST
How to Survive Anything

A Terrorist Attack

Following the Paris attacks of November 2015, the BBC surveyed survival experts and came away with confidence-building advice.

  • Case 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. Stay quiet and put your phone on silent.
  • '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-like the group of people who cooperated to escape the Bataclan via skylight.
  • Stay vigilant. You can do your bit by ensuring that all your verification processes (particularly tenant verification) are complete and in order. Be watchful and report anything remotely suspicious.


An Earworm

Remember Anu Malik's 'Dekho Baarish Ho Rahi Hai'? It was the second line, the bone-crunching 'It's raining, it's raining' that always got stuck in one's head. It would take a whole teeth-gnashing day to get it out. There is a better way, though, 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'. On this side of the world, try humming 'Jana Gana Mana'to clear your head before twilight's last gleaming.


Being Stranded In the Wilderness

As the longtime editor of many of the Reader's Digest survival stories, Beth Dreher learnt 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, you 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 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. Reach for fruits that monkeys eat. Nearly all wild bird eggs are edible, but they could be protected by the law. Eat them only if you have no option. If you are close to a stream, try freshwater fish. Avoid mushrooms, if you don't know which ones are safe.
  • Brave an animal ambush. We've read about bear and shark attacks. But what about an aggressive wolf or deer? Regardless of species, stand your ground. Running triggers the animal's chase mentality, and unless you're trying to avoid a snake, you won't be able to run fast enough.
  • Signal a rescuer. The subjects of many of my stories are able to attract the attention of rescuers using a reflection, 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 an airplane 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 backcountry cliffs, survive plane crashes, fall thousands of feet without a parachute-and often break bones. One key to these folks' 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, immobilize the joints above and below it; if your joint is injured, immobilize 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.


A Lay-off

The best thing you can do with your time (besides look for a new job, of course): Play ball! According to a happiness study from the University of Alberta, participating in physical activity increases life satisfaction three times as much as being unemployed reduces it.


The Doctor's Needle

If you are among the roughly 10 per cent of people who fear a loaded syringe, heed these tips:

  • Fess up. Be honest. Tell your doctor how those needles make you feel; she may ask you to 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 candy provides a sweet distraction from the doc.
  • Skip the coffee. Caffeine can make you anxious for up to six hours before your procedure.
  • Practise deep breathing. It will help you relax and concentrate on something other than the impending needle. Consider it a calming as well as a distracting tactic.


Natural Disasters

Whether it is a flood, cyclone or an earthquake, disaster management expert C. Balaji Singh helps you prepare.

  • Know your area. The 2016 National Disaster Management Plan divides India into six categories that need a specialized approach given their geophysical, administrative and logistical challenges. These include the Himalayan region, coastal tracts, riverine areas, the Northeast, union territories, islands, marine assets, and arid and semi-arid regions.
  • Be aware of micronization or specific vulnerabilities, and take preventive steps. For instance, 38 Indian cities with a population of over half a million fall into seismic zones 3, 4 and 5. Identify parts of your city that are most vulnerable.
  • Insure your home and other valuables. Financial and mental preparedness go a long way.
  • Keep a disaster emergency kit handy. The National Disaster Management Authority says the kit should include a torch, extra batteries, radio, first-aid kit with essential medicines, important identity papers, emergency food (dry items) and water, candles and matches, knife, chlorine tablets, cash, thick ropes and shoes.
  • Plan an evacuation strategy. Discuss it with your family including children and the elderly. Assign roles to everyone and ensure there is easy access to helpline numbers.


Exam Stress

This one's hit you at some stage for sure. Six handy tips from experts that will help you (or the one taking the exam) cope better as D-day approaches.

  • Finding it difficult to learn by rote? Try different ways of studying. Create flash cards, sticky notes or mnemonics, read out loud, highlight or make diagrams.
  •  Plan the revision well. Study each topic thoroughly, preparing with model questions. If you can't cover everything just before the test, don't panic. Remember to focus on frequently asked questions. 
  • Parents must talk to their child reassuringly about their fears and motivate them to give it their best. Children need to know that it is not the end of the world and they need to hear it from you.
  • Make some space for downtime.Allow for a little social media, music or TV, or time outdoors. Moderation, not extremes, is the key.
  • Sleep well the night before the exam and eat a wholesome, high-protein breakfast before leaving home.
  • Be mindful of how the student is feeling. If they are particularly stressed and hesitant to confide in you, reach out for professional help or call helplines for advice and support. 


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 to 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 McMaster University physician found in a study of 145 students from his daughter's middle school, kids who scarfed a bowl of ice cream in five seconds or less were twice as likely to feel brain freeze as opposed to those who took their time.


A Stomach Bug

Gastroenteritis is the inflammation of the stomach and intestines, thanks to viruses and bad bacteria. Dr Girish S. P., a Bengaluru-based gastroenterology surgeon shares tips to deal with it: Use boiled water and only buy bottled water from reputed brands. Avoid street food, particularly chutneys and milkshakes. If you do fall victim to the bug, use ORS (oral rehydration solution) such as Electral and see a doctor. When recovering, eat light foods, such as curd rice or khichri, and only drink cool water.


Television News

Between the thoughtless and the jingoistic, television's 9 o'clock news is akin to the witching hour, fraught with verbal violence. The downward spiral of TRP-hunting news TV takes a toll: hollering anchors, shrill talking heads, blatant self-aggrandizement, naming and shaming, and doctored videos. Barring a few sane channels, it beams into millions of Indian homes with such ferocity that viewers are stressed, bewildered and exhausted. Here's how to survive it.

  • Put the television on mute. Talking heads are infinitely more amusing then.
  • Ditch the telly. Sit around the dining table with your family for a meal. Converse while looking at each other, and not the phone.
  • Do deep-breathing exercises and count backwards from 100.
  • Be old-fashioned.Read a book, a magazine or a newspaper.
  • Go for a post-dinner walk to shrug off work exhaustion and aid digestion.


A Plane Crash

The smallest bump feels like an earthquake at 35,000 feet. But plane crash fatalities are at an all-time low-and with a few simple 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 truly fear flying, it's worth giving up the legroom for some peace of mind in the rear.
  • 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 or bracing 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 your flight attendants: Always secure your oxygen mask before helping others. You can't help if you can't breathe.


A Divorce

'Divorce is always good news,' says comedian Louis C.K., 'because no good marriage has ever ended in one.' These three actions could help you deal with the emotional process.

  • Write the pain away. Relief can be as simple as freewriting 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 says in his book, Expressive Writing: Words That Heal. One study says, 'Those who kept their traumas secret went to physicians almost 40 per cent more often than those who openly talked about them.'
  • 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.
  • See it through your kids' eyes.In 2014, actress Gwyneth Paltrow popularized 'conscious uncoupling' as a byword for an amicable divorce. Doctors Habib Sadeghi and Sherry Sami wrote on Paltrow's website, 'Children are imitators by nature … If we are to raise a more civilized generation, we must model those behaviours during the good and bad times in our relationships.'


Four Mnemonic Devices That'll Save You Big Trouble

  • To staunch blood flow, remember: PEEP. Position the person on the floor, if possible. Expose the injury. Elevate the wound. Apply pressure.
  • To treat shock, remember: 'Face is red, raise the head. Face is pale, raise the tail.'
  •  To identify signs of a heart attack, remember: PULSE. Persistent chest pain. Upset stomach. Light-headedness. Shortness of breath. Excessive sweating.
  • To use a fire extinguisher, remember: PASS. Pull the pin. Aim at the base of the fire.Squeeze the trigger. Sweep across the fire. 


The World's Slowest Line

Anytime you have more than two lines to choose from, odds are you will not pick the fastest one. What to do? It's simple.

  • Just start early: At the airport, avoid the last-minute dash through security, especially in the morning business rush hour. Book a later flight if you can.
  • Try out a few queue management apps that are becoming quite the thing now. There is BookMyShow for movie and play tickets, Foodpanda to order food and Practo for doctor appointments. State Bank of India has a no-queue app for selective services, as well!


Traffic Jams

Did you know that 49 per cent of drivers in India spend more than 12 hours every week in their cars? That, according to a 2015 study by ford motor company, is about 100 minutes every day. In fact, 63 per cent of Indian drivers are most stressed about congested traffic. Long jams and the choicest of abuses. Sound familiar? These tips will definitely help.

  • Make Google maps your best friend and save regular destinations like home and work. It monitors traffic, accidents and roadblocks in real time. It will even ping your phone in case of a particularly horrendous jam.
  • Give Ridlr a shot. The app works across most major cities in the country with real-time traffic and route information. They also have twitter accounts perfect for peak-hour traffic.
  • If you are stuck in a jam, roll up the windows, blast some music and sing along … loudly. According to the survey, 47 per cent of Indian drivers say singing helps with traffic stress.
  • Give way to that obnoxious man who has been tailgating you, while honking really, really loudly. Then, shake your head at his sheer rudeness and adjust your halo.
  • If your engine is switched off, plug in your hands-free and catch up with friends. Update your to-do list or shop online if you are not driving.
  • Flex and rotate your ankles, whenever you come to a stop. It will ease the ache in your shin.
  • Keep a bottle of water handy and stay hydrated. There is nothing worse than being thirsty and in a traffic jam. A pack of nuts will help you energize.


As a Woman in Public Spaces

Women-only transport may be an option, but it isn't the only one. Here are some things you can keep in mind to stay and feel safe.

  • Stay mindful of your surroundings and the people around you. Err on the side of caution.
  • Always trust and listen to your instincts. They are never wrong.
  • Keep pepper spray in your bag or a stick within easy reach in your car. Take self-defence classes.
  • Always lock your car doors and windows and avoid parking in dark or secluded areas. Never linger in the parking lot longer than necessary.
  •  Keep a whistle. In case of an emergency, draw attention or run towards a crowded area.
  • Try some safety apps. SafetiPin identifies safe zones in a city. It's currently available in 11 cities including the National Capital Region, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai and Guwahati. Then there is bSafe, SmartShehar, Raksha and Abhaya that help you build a social-safety network and will send alerts to contacts of your choosing, in an emergency. Many of these work when you are in a no-data zone as well.
  • S.I.N.G. along. Remember Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality and the four sensitive areas or S.I.N.G.: solar plexus, instep, nose, groin. Especially handy if you are wearing heels.


A National Epidemic (Zombie Apocalypse Included)

Aping the popularity of TV's zombie drama The Walking Dead, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released an educational comic book about zombie preparedness. Doubling as a legitimate guide to surviving a pandemic, the comic offers these to-die-for tips:

  • Hunker down. Seriously, lock your doors and stay home unless absolutely necessary or instructed otherwise.
  • Watch your squad. When the virus hits, be ready to use your braaaaaiiiiins. If someone you're with is showing signs of infection, quarantine the person.
  • Tune in. Should you stay where you are or bug out for a government-set safe zone? Keep a battery- or crank-powered radio nearby for safety updates in the event of a power outage.
  • Don't be a hero. Lower the crossbow TV zombie fighters favour; the infected are still your neighbours. Take every precaution not to kill one another while the government works on distributing a vaccine and treating patients. 


Crowd Crush

When a huge crowd hits a tight choke point, a scary thing happens: The crowd starts moving like a fluid, each person forced forward by the people behind, regardless of whether there's anywhere to move. This occurred last September when a group of more than a million pilgrims reached a narrow street intersection in Mecca. Trapped between the force of people behind them and the wall of people in front, some 2,200 died from compressive asphyxiation, the air literally crushed from their lungs. It's a terrible fate but one you can avoid. Here's how.

  • Don't fight the tide. Shock waves from the back of the crowd will push you forward-do not fight them. Stopping is the quickest way to fall, and falling is the quickest way to die. Instead, 'Wait for the surge to come, go with it and move sideways. Keep moving with it and sideways, with it and sideways,' says Edwin Galea, a crowd behaviour specialist at the University of Greenwich.
  • If you do fall, make an air pocket ASAP. Try to fall in a rigid fetal position (arms over your face and chest) to attempt to make room for your lungs to breathe. One man survived the 2003 Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island by doing this and securing a small supply of fresh air through the blaze.


Getting A Ring Stuck On Your Finger

'When a ring threatens to cut off circulation to a swelling finger, you have to get that tiny tourniquet off any way you can,' says James Hubbard, MD, MPH, author of The Survival Doctor's Complete Handbook: What to Do When Help Is Not on the Way. Before you buy a ring cutter or draft an apology letter to your beloved, first check your bathroom cabinet for a carton of dental floss. That little spool of string might just be your salvation. What to do:

  1. Ice the finger for five minutes to reduce swelling.
  2. Slather a lubricant such as soap, grease or lotion all over the finger to help the ring slide.
  3. Tear off a foot or two of dental floss or another strong string.
  4. Poke one end of the floss under the ring,towards your palm, and pull it a couple of inches out.
  5. Wrap the longer piece firmly around your finger, starting next to the ring and continuing towards the end of the finger until it's wrapped well past the joint you're trying to get the ring past. The goal is to compress the swelling and push some of it towards the skinnier part of your finger
  6. Grab the two-inch end of the floss that you've poked under your ring and pull on it as you push the ring past the joint until it's free. Voilà! You get to keep the finger-and the ring.


For more essential first-aid tips and tricks from a survival-medicine specialist, refer to The Survival Doctor's Complete Handbook.


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