On April 14, 2002, while routinely patrolling the Indian Ocean, a French Navy vessel spotted a dinghy with two passengers onboard. They had been drifting for 20 days. After being shipwrecked, they had escaped in a seven-meter-long lifeboat. They survived exposure, the blazing sun and a failed motor by drinking rainwater and eating bream that they fished from the sea with harpoons. After drifting 750 kilometers, the passengers’ survival seemed miraculous.

Every year, stories emerge of people who manage to endure weeks or months onboard a simple craft. Some of these accounts are legendary, such as a case that was immortalized by French artist Théodore Géricault in his painting The Raft of the Medusa. After a French Frigate called the Medusa ran aground on a sandbank off of what is now Mauritania in 1816, nearly 150 survivors crammed onto an improvised raft. Only 10 survived. The present record for endurance goes to Salvadoran fisherman José Salvador Alvarenga, whose boat was swept offshore by high winds and a storm before running out of fuel. Between mid-November 2012 and late January 2014—a period of 438 days and a distance of 9,000 kilometers—Alvarenga drifted across the Pacific. For the first four months, he was accompanied by a co-worker, who later died.

Some shipwreck survivors leave eyewitness accounts, making it possible to explore a fundamental question: Aside from the material requirements for staying alive, how do survivors psychologically cope with such an ordeal?

The Trauma of the Castaway

Being shipwrecked is one of the most calamitous experiences that can happen to a human. The initial shock is severe: victims of a shipwreck see their boat sink, feel the icy contact with the ocean and must quickly find a solution. Within a few minutes, they may find themselves in a crude but more or less well-equipped lifeboat—for an indeterminate period of time. They are often alone, lost in the vastness of the ocean, tossed by waves on all sides that obliterate the horizon. When victims are accompanied by other people, they suffer less from loneliness, but the situation comes at the cost of privacy. They cannot be alone even for a second. In an instant, a shipwreck upends all points of reference, whether material, emotional, social or sensory. The feeling is one of awful separation, accompanied by acute anxiety, and sometimes panic, commensurate with a total breakdown of the familiar environment.

Once the acute phase of the shipwreck has passed, great uncertainty sets in. For people not used to the sea, living conditions are almost impossible to imagine: the looming risk of death; the confinement; the absolute and unrelieved isolation; the total lack of comfort; the appalling hygiene; the constant humidity; the attack of the salt and sun on the skin; the freezing cold in some cases; the sleeplessness; the seasickness; and the muscle pains from awkward positions—not to mention the lack of water and food. The list is endless. Extreme fatigue follows quickly, accentuated by the dramatic circumstances of the shipwreck.

Life of the Castaway

Psychologically, shipwreck victims go through an extremely painful experience. They constantly feel a dull anxiety, which at times turns into terror, depending on unforeseen events, such as the appearance of sharks, the deflation or capsizing of the lifeboat, the onset of disease and the death of a companion.

The main risk at the time of the shipwreck is panic. Eventually, however, it evolves into passivity—the castaway’s worst enemy. Passivity is naturally linked to the monotony of life adrift but also to hopelessness, which can set in rapidly and have fatal consequences. After a few weeks, some survivors become indifferent to everything and basically let themselves go. The case of the Marie-Jeanne, a motor launch that broke down off the Seychelles in 1953, is illustrative. The 10 passengers who remained onboard abandoned any attempt to feed themselves or even to fish. They simply waited. On the 74th day, when an Italian tanker found them, only two young men were left alive, collapsed in a corner.

Another psychological feature observed in shipwreck survivors is the profound transformation of their connection to reality, which includes an altered perception of time and the blurring of spatial boundaries. An impression of having always lived at sea and being outside of time rapidly takes hold as the present expands, blotting out past and future. “Day followed day without making any impact on our minds,” wrote Maurice Bailey of the 119 days he and his wife Maralyn spent cast away on a life raft in the Pacific in 1973 in their book Staying Alive! On the 104th day, he wrote, “it appeared as though we knew no other life. I had stopped dreaming about our life before or after this misadventure.”

Disturbances in the perception of reality often result, including illusions and sometimes hallucinations. Various factors may contribute, such as constantly disturbed sleep, metabolic disorders, fatigue and dehydration, as well as a defense against anxiety and a spiritual identification with nature. This identification may often be enhanced by the experience of an “oceanic feeling,” the sensation of being at one with the universe, which was notably described by Sigmund Freud in his 1929 book Civilization and Its Discontents. Sometimes delusional episodes occur, as in the case of the Medusa.

Regaining Control

After an initial period of despair and hopelessness, the shipwrecked have no choice but to pull themselves together. Many of them pursue positive and active strategies, although these may be interspersed with phases of deep despondency. The first step often consists of taking stock of the situation and planning what to do next: inventorying food and survival equipment, stowing them in the lifeboat and estimating how long it will be before help comes. This step is essential in the fight against complacency and anxiety in order to develop a sense of regaining control.

In the face of danger, castaways’ psychological reaction—especially stress – depends on how they assess their ability to control events and to cope with the situation. “Perceived control” is a subjective ability that varies from one individual to another, but it is also based on objective considerations, such as available materials and food. Consequently, several factors are likely to favor it, such as information about the situation, knowledge of the rules of survival and other castaway stories, and, in particular, rejection of inactivity. Any number of activities may thus restore the feeling of control: collecting rainwater, improving one’s fishing technique, making a fire to cook an albatross or catching a turtle. After her shipwreck off the Solomon Islands in 1990, French sailor Claudine Paré-Lescure escaped in an inflatable dinghy and used the paddles to build a makeshift mast. Although her boat was hard to maneuver, the simple fact of moving forward had a salutary effect on her mood.

Belief in one’s ability to control events and feeling involved in activities are two of the three characteristics of stress resistance proposed in a 1979 study by psychologist Suzanne Ouellette (at the time Suzanne Kobasa), who also employed the term “hardiness.” The third characteristic is anticipating change in a positive way. “Among persons under stress, those who view change as a challenge will remain healthier than those who view it as a threat,” Kobasa wrote. “Persons who feel positively about change are catalysts in their environment and are well practiced at responding to the unexpected.” Indeed, some shipwreck survivors are sailors who are used to competition (such as the Vendée Globe, a major sailing race around the world) and generally manage to see an opportunity to progress with each new challenge they encounter—whether they are dealing with a technological innovation or a hardware glitch.

Aside from the feeling of regaining control, the different activities that set a rhythm for the day have another advantage. They help combat the unbearable expansion of the present by creating a segmented perception of time focused on the current experience. Bathing, having breakfast, fishing, tidying up, eating lunch, taking a nap, playing games, sleeping. Establishing these routines is not easy because it means disregarding the condition of being shipwrecked. But it is a healthy reflex.

A case in point is the Robertson family, whose schooner was attacked by killer whales in 1972 and who survived for 38 days onboard an inflatable raft and a fiberglass dinghy. The family divided up the tasks. The father, Dougal Robertson, prepared turtle meat and fished. His wife Lyn Robertson took care of the “house” and the children. She encouraged them to keep up their personal hygiene, exercise, write to friends and draw on a piece of sailcloth. In the evening she sang them Johannes Brahms’s “Lullaby” to help them sleep. The Robertsons also invented games, recalled their travels and discussed delicious meals that they would make. These activities kept them busy and distracted their attention from the perils of their situation. More important, daily routines provided structure and the semblance of an organized life, averting the anxiety that would have resulted from jettisoning all the customary rules.

Keeping busy, however, is not the only way to regulate the day. Anything that breaks the monotony is useful, observed Xavier Maniguet, a physician and a survival specialist, in his book Survival: How to Prevail in Hostile Environments. “To cope with the apparent nothingness, [the castaway] must structure his landscape,” Maniguet wrote. “Clouds and waves, dawn and dusk, storms and swells, marine and avian life—everything must become an event, an excuse for reflection, an opportunity to act, any and all reasons to break a desperately repetitive cycle.”

Imagination to the Rescue

Nevertheless, the length of time spent adrift and the harshness of the material conditions cause substantial suffering. And resorting to activities or events does not suffice. Another dimension emerges from the accounts of people who have survived extreme situations, whether at sea or in the mountains or even under imprisonment and torture—namely, an astonishing ability to use the imagination and an inner space. In this way, castaways compensate for their hostile environment with thoughts and reveries that carry them to other places or remind them of their loved ones.

Mental imagery appears to be very effective for regulating emotions and escaping. There is no need to fantasize about extraordinary adventures. Reality is already sufficiently out of the ordinary, and the humdrum does the trick. Frequent themes are food, particularly meals and menu planning. The late British yachtsman Tony Bullimore, who was shipwrecked during the 1996–1997 Vendée Globe, recounted one of his daydreams in his book Saved: The Extraordinary Tale of Survival and Rescue in the Southern Ocean. “I take the car and drive down Ashley Road in St Paul’s [in England] to meet Ronald, a friend of mine, at the Cambridge for a few drinks,” he wrote.The simple of fact of thinking about family and friends increases the motivation to survive. Sailor Steven Callahan, who lived for two and a half months in a lifeboat in 1982, explained in his book Adrift: Seventy-Six Days Lost at Sea that he “[lowered] the drawbridge to childhood memories” and, as he visualized the rooms of his early years, saw himself back with his toy soldiers. The boundary between revery and hallucination may blur. Some shipwreck survivors report visions of submarines delivering fresh bread and couscous, friends whipping up chocolate mousse in their kitchen or simply fresh water.

At other times, people manage to survive psychologically by planning projects. Any idea, even a utopian one, will do: building a boat or a house, gardening or testing out recipes. In a way, thinking about the future is to believe in survival. The Robertsons often imagined what they would do once they returned home, for example—the cat they would get and the restaurant they would open.

The Power of Cognitive Strategies

In addition to imagination, all of a person’s cognitive resources need to be mobilized. Human beings have the ability to manage their emotions by cognitively processing situations and thoughts to lift their mood, limit anxiety and remain hopeful. In 1984 psychologists Susan Folkman and Richard Lazarus developed what is known as the “transactional model of stress and coping.” The idea is that stress does not depend as much on events as on the way they are perceived and interpreted.

For this reason, in the face of danger, it is better to avoid focusing all attention on the risk at hand because otherwise it could become overwhelming and trigger acute stress that is very hard to control. Without ignoring the truth, it is possible to emphasize the positive, as sailor Thierry Dubois did during the 1996–1997 Vendée Globe. After his yacht capsized, a plane dropped him a raft that also capsized. As described in Bullimore’s book, Dubois then thought, “Okay. The challenges continue, but the raft is intact.” This attitude often implies a bit of dissimulation, in particular on the part of the group leader. Dougal Robertson believed that his castaway family members were all going to die, yet he later confided having hidden that expectation from them.

In daily survival, the objective is to seek a “cognitive correction” to negative emotions and thoughts. The benefit goes far beyond keeping stress at bay. Bullimore found the approach to be a valuable aid against agonizing ruminations about death. When these thoughts began to overwhelm him in the air pocket of his upturned yacht, he remembered two little birds that had taken refuge on it a few days before the shipwreck. One bird died shortly thereafter, and the other one flew off. “Think of the other bird that managed to fly away,” Bullimore recounting telling himself at the time in his book. “The strong survive and the weak perish. I have to be strong. Forget about any self-pity.”

Addressing challenges by finding a sort of counterweight is another useful technique, though it is admittedly difficult in an extreme situation. Excruciating hunger may be fought by comparing it with real famine or with the precarious situation in which many elderly people live. In 1966 then British paratroopers John Ridgway and Chay Blyth became the second team ever to row across the Atlantic in an open dory—braving storms, cold and near starvation. As recounted in their book A Fighting Chance, at a low point in their 92-day undertaking, Blyth observed, “What about the thousands of old-age pensioners who have nothing more to eat every day than us[?]” The same strategy was observed in survivors of the Medusa wreck. And in his book Survive the Savage Sea, Dougal Robertson, who felt guilty for having dragged his children into an adventure, described how he sought to ease his conscience “with the thought that they had derived much benefit from their voyage and that our sinking was as unforeseeable as an earthquake, or an aeroplane crash, or anything.”

While they do constitute an essential weapon, these techniques for dealing with painful emotions are only effective when they are accompanied by an altered mindset. People who survive the experience of being shipwrecked emphasize the profound inner transformation of acquiring a new identity—that of a shipwrecked person living on a raft. In other words, it is essential that, at a certain point, castaways accept their situation and the suffering it entails and find a way of resigning themselves to it—but only if it is a “positive resignation.” Contradictory though it seems, this expression has nothing to do with the ordinary meaning of resign but rather underscores the acceptance of constraints, followed by adaptation.

The Lifesaving Oxymoron

The same type of transformation has been observed in astronauts, as recounted by physician Jean Rivolier in his French book L’Homme dans l’Espace (Man in Space). During an experiment conducted by psychologist Michael Novikov in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, five-man crews were isolated in a 50-square-meter room for five to 12 days under very basic hygienic conditions. Some of them were more or less able to accept these conditions, whereas others focused on the negative aspects and suffered accordingly. The experimental findings showed that the positive attitude was more effective, resulting in less stress, fewer negative emotions, fewer conflicts and a greater capacity to work.

At a European Space Agency conference on stress in extreme environments in Toulouse, France, in 2001, the event’s organizer Daniel Marcaillou stated that astronauts on their way to Mars will have to be “capable of producing happiness” and “[maintaining] an internal dialogue, an internal mode of communication.” Their ability to do that will “depend on the types of thoughts they are having at the time,” he said. We have made similar observations with shipwreck victims. Survivors have exceptional imaginative abilities that allow them to guard their privacy by isolating themselves internally from others, to combat isolation by virtually visiting their loved ones and to mitigate suffering by re-creating an internally happy world.

In neither case—astronauts or castaways—does one’s mindset make the necessary changes immediately. At some point, a shift occurs, as Dougal Robertson reported in his book. “From that instant on, I became a savage….,” he wrote. “I said: ‘From now on we have a new password; we forget words like rescue for we can expect none.’” In this difficult context, accepting one’s fate does not equal passive submission. It is undoubtedly the best strategy that the castaway can adopt, not only to survive but to live.

The most effective way to achieve positive resignation is to construct a “transitional space.” Originally developed by pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, this concept was defined in 1979 by psychoanalyst René Kaës as a “place where the experience of being at the breaking point of something is elaborated.” In other words, it is a space that straddles the real and the imaginary—as with play—that allows the transition between inner reality and a sometimes hostile outer world. The shipwrecked person creates a “neoculture”—that of the inhabitant of a raft accepting their fate, with an organized structure, activities and way of life. An example is Callahan, who spent 76 days alone after his boat sank. He created a whole series of rules and imagined an architectural space for his raft, as if it were a house. In Adrift: Seventy-Six Days Lost at Sea, a diary of his journey, Callahan recounted that one half of the raft was his “butcher shop,” where he would cut up the fish he caught. “By now the habitat in which I live, Duckyville, has become a neighborly suburb,” he wrote on day 46.

Someone Must Take Charge

When several people are onboard, the group has to stay together. The many stories of survival at sea emphasize the importance of a supportive but firm leader and indicate a certain advantage for groups that had a structure before the shipwreck (such as families and the military). Conversely, a disruptive member or fragmentation into subgroups lowers the chances of survival. In 1943 future U.S. president John F. Kennedy, who was then commanding a patrol boat, managed to keep his crew together when his ship was wrecked off the Solomon Islands after a collision with a Japanese destroyer. He showed exemplary conduct, both at the time of the shipwreck (when he dived to search for several sailors) and later, when he swam for help despite the risk of being spotted by the Japanese. Everyone in his crew was saved except for two men who were killed in the collision.

Cognitive-behavioral therapies refer to “modeling” to describe the role that certain individuals play as exemplars. One of the few published studies of survival at sea, conducted by Australian researchers Scott Henderson and Tudor Bostock, confirms the significance of this factor: Seven men who had drifted for more than a week on a raft were interviewed between one and five days after their rescue. Analysis of their responses revealed that the leader of the group had both organized its survival and set an example by showing compassion to his men while remaining firm in the face of anger and despair.

In addition to being a role model, the leader is responsible for group cohesion—a true alchemy that requires the involvement of everyone. Following the mutiny on the Bounty in 1789, the ship’s capitan William Bligh’s behavior was remarkable. Abandoned in a rowboat with 19 men who had stayed loyal to him, he spent 45 days with them and suffered only one death. He inspired his ersatz crew, inviting his subordinates to participate in decision-making, particularly regarding rationing food and water. Providing people the opportunity to choose is a basic element of the psychology of commitment and motivation. In contrast, Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys, commander of the Medusa, displayed miserable leadership during that frigate’s shipwreck. Unable to maintain order before abandoning the ship, he took his place in one of the Medusa’s six longboats. The plan was to tow the raft containing overflow passengers and crew to the coast, but the raft was cut loose shortly into its journey.

Survival Cannot Be Improvised

The fact that many shipwreck survivors have shown exceptional resistance and have managed to find the right psychological strategies is also the result of preparation. Being a sailor requires training, a readiness to face adversity and the ability to envisage the most extreme situations, as well as the acquisition of a specific culture. This is partly why the shipwrecks of ocean liners are the most deadly. Not only are there many passengers, but they are also inexperienced.

A sailor’s training fosters resilience, which is protective in extreme situations. In the French paper “Le Lien de la Liberté” (“The Link of Freedom”), published in 1989, the late philosopher François Roustang described the very different experiences of two Uruguayan militants who were tortured under the country’s earlier dictatorship. One of the militants, named Pepe, managed to resist his torturers by hallucinating the presence of his comrades around him. These were not “delirious” hallucinations, in the sense that the subject was conscious of their unreality, but a form of reverie so powerful that it engendered a second state, akin to hypnosis. The second prisoner, Pedro, did not use this approach, however. According to Roustang, the difference between the two men reflected their prior way of life and culture. Pepe was a grassroots activist, whereas Pedro had no “physical experience of images, stories or aspirations.” Consequently, he was unable to virtually summon comradeship under torture.

Ultimately, the same type of phenomenon may come into play for some shipwreck survivors. That is, a strong—not simply idealized—identification with a maritime culture that they have actually experienced in terms of suffering, solidarity and patience greatly increases their ability to harness the power of mental imagery and thoughts of escape.

If, however, you did not grow up on a boat, and one day you find yourself shipwrecked, do not despair. Simply knowing the stories of other castaways and the most effective psychological strategies is a valuable asset. Indeed, reading this article should already have provided you with some basic equipment. Even Callahan, an experienced sailor, acknowledged that he owed his survival, in part, to having read a book about Dougal Robertson’s ordeal. Moreover, you do not need to be a sailor to enlist your imagination, persevere and above all remain confident in yourself and in the possibility of a solution.

Lessons for COVID-19

Some of shipwreck survivors’ psychological strategies pertain to the pandemic that has reached every corner of the globe. As on-and-off lockdowns drag on, we are a bit like castaways adrift on the waves, desperately scanning the horizon for rescue. This period may be the hardest to bear. Resistance begins to wane, and lassitude starts to set in.

The main lesson from these chronicles—whether in a lifeboat, outer space or closeted at home—is the value of acceptance because we will have to live with the virus for a much longer time than we expected in March or April 2020. We are probably still too focused on the thought of a future solution—the arrival of the vaccines or the disappearance of the virus—in the rather pointless expectation of returning to our former existence instead of learning to live differently. Castaways teach us the importance of positive resignation, which consists of accepting constraints by adapting to them. We need to change our thinking and create a new life, or neoculture—a term Kaës used in reference to crisis situations that disrupt everyday routines. The current neoculture of masking up and social distancing is harsh, traumatizing and discouraging. But opposing it and constantly trying to get around, or fight against, it will only make things worse. French humanitarian Sophie Pétronin was held hostage in Mali for four years. Following her release on October 8, 2020, she commented on her detention. “If you accept what is happening, it will not go too badly,” she said. “If you resist, you will hurt yourself.”

Accepting does not mean abandoning optimism. There are worse situations, and things will eventually get better. This is often what castaways tell themselves. Castaways also survive thanks to other techniques that apply to life under COVID, especially during periods of lockdown: managing relationships with others by avoiding useless and repetitive complaints and by not constantly communicating worries; keeping calm and cheerful around one’s family; using humor; creatively reorganizing daily life and establishing certain routines; learning to be patient and to enjoy the present moment and being willing to relinquish customary hobbies. It is also important to use one’s imagination to plan future trips or a life project or simply to envision having cake and coffee on a sunny terrace while reading the news in peace. That is what French rower Gérard d’Aboville did during his crossing of the Pacific in 1991 onboard a rowboat. (In his case, it was a voluntary journey, but it is one that bears many similarities to what a castaway endures.) “Simply to know that this terrace existed, that it was awaiting me, even if it was a possibility I would never take advantage of, even if it was nothing but a mirage, was enough to fill me with happiness,” he wrote in his book Alone: The True Story of the Man Who Fought the Sharks, Waves, and Weather of the Pacific and Won.

In essence, lockdown is a direct contradiction to a consumer society based on instant gratification. Many castaways see change as a challenge rather than a threat, which helps them to survive. COVID-19 offers us an opportunity to move closer to a more moderate and planet-friendly lifestyle. Why not take it? We will only be better off in the short and long term.

This article originally appeared in Cerveau & Psycho and was reproduced with permission.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)Luc-Christophe GuillermLuc-Christophe Guillerm is a psychiatrist and a graduate in history.