Thai cave boys—the psychology of surviving underground

July 6, 2018 by Sarita Robinson, The Conversation

The entrance to Tham Luang cave in happier times. Credit: via www.shutterstock.com
,When 12 young footballers and their coach entered the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Thailand, it was supposed to be a fun outing after football practice. But when a torrent of flood water rushed in after heavy rain, the group became trapped on a small rock shelf deep inside the cave's vast network of tunnels.

It was nine days before two British divers, John Volanthen and Richard Stanton, located the group – mercifully alive and apparently in good physical and mental health. But how do people cope with such life-threatening events? And why is it important to focus on psychological, as well as physiological impact?

When the boys first became aware that they were facing a life-threatening situation they would have experienced a number of physiological reactions. Fight or flight responses, such as an increase in heart rate, would have kicked in immediately, designed to help us stay alive.

But despite their physiological benefits, these neurochemical changes can affect our brain, and impair our mental functioning. During the initial stages of an emergency situation our brains may perform poorly, potentially resulting in poor decision-making and memory failures. Fortunately, when the came crashing in, the Thai footballers and coach appear to have remained level headed. They were able to control feelings of panic, and made the rational decision to find a safe place and wait.

As the immediate danger from the flood waters receded, more long-term survival needs will have come into focus. Everyone knows that the human body has basic physical requirement: an adequate supply of food, water and warmth. What people often forget is that brain function is also sensitive to environmental factors. When exposed to the elements, dehydrated, hungry, or suffering from sleep deprivation, the human brain cannot function within its normal operating parameters.

In these conditions people can make poor decisions which can put them at risk. The Thai footballers seem to have managed to keep themselves hydrated, and although they were clearly hungry when they were found, they appeared cognitively intact, looking alert and asking appropriate questions. Again, this shows that the boys and their coach managed to stay both physically and psychologically healthy during the nine long days they spent waiting in the dark.

In a survival situation, your mental health is just as important as your physical health. Maintaining a positive attitude is crucial: people who remain optimistic are more likely to think that adverse events are controllable, and so are more likely to undertake positive behaviours to try and survive. Pessimistic thinking increases feelings of anxiety and helplessness, which can stop people from trying to proactively improve their situation.

In extreme cases, people can give up mentally, withdraw into themselves, and even die. This is known as psychogenic death, essentially giving up. From the early footage, the footballers seem to have managed to stay positive while awaiting rescue. They are seen laughing and joking with the divers – a very promising sign.

Another way to maintain mental strength is to draw on any social support available in the situation. This can be a friend or family member: anyone you feel you can count on in a time of need. It is thought that this kind of support can act as a buffer, and when we face danger in good company we perceive the situation to be less threatening than we would if we were alone. The fact that the Thai footballers have been able to draw on each other through their ordeal will have been a big boost to their mental health.

Currently the footballers appear in good spirits, so the next challenge is to remove them safely from the cave. Two main options have been put forward. First, teaching them to swim and use diving equipment, so they can leave the cave the same way their rescuers came in. Or option two, to leave the boys in the cave for the duration of the rainy season, which could last four to five months.

This is certainly possible, and we know that people frequently live, and adapt well in extreme environments. Sailors on submarines or yachts can spend long periods living in cramped conditions, as long as their basic needs are met and they adjust psychologically to their living conditions. In fact, in 2010 a group of 33 Chilean miners survived 69 days before they were rescued.

Once the 12 boys and their coach are rescued they will need to re-adapt to their everyday lives, and some are worried that they might suffer long-term problems as a result of their experience. To this day some of the Chilean miners report struggling to hold down jobs and some experience harrowing flashbacks to their time spent underground.

Hopefully the boys won't be trapped for nearly so long. And, while they may experience short-term adverse effects, it's likely that with the support of their friends and family, they will recover. In some cases people have even reported experiencing positive outcomes after being exposed to traumatic events. Nevertheless they should be closely monitored after their ordeal, and if after a period of watchful waiting psychologists are still concerned, then psychological support can be offered.

Explore further: New study launched to examine the mental health of footballers

Related Stories

New study launched to examine the mental health of footballers

February 27, 2018
The University of Liverpool has launched a new study to explore and assess the mental health and well-being of academy and professional football players.

Extreme stress during childhood can hurt social learning for years to come

June 20, 2018
Each year, more than 6 million children in the United States are referred to Child Protective Services for abuse or neglect. Previous research on the consequences of early life stress and child maltreatment shows that these ...

People born with a heart defect are at greater risk of mental health problems

June 8, 2018
One in every 125 babies is born with a heart condition – but thanks to modern medicine more infants are surviving than ever before. In the developed world, 90% will now live into adulthood, compared with just 20% in the ...

Football performance impaired by mental fatigue

June 16, 2016
Professional footballers and their coaches often complain about the mental fatigue induced by the stress of frequent matches.

Retired professional footballers at higher risk of knee osteoarthritis

November 2, 2017
Retired professional footballers are far more prone to develop knee pain and osteoarthritis and face problems with their knees earlier in life than the average person, a study has revealed.

Self-rating mental health as 'good' predicts positive future mental health

April 2, 2018
Researchers have found that when a person rates their current mental health as 'positive' despite meeting criteria for a mental health problem such as depression, it can predict good mental health in the future, even without ...

Recommended for you

Researchers discover abundant source for neuronal cells

December 13, 2018
USC researchers seeking a way to study genetic activity associated with psychiatric disorders have discovered an abundant source of human cells—the nose.

New genetic clues to early-onset form of dementia

December 13, 2018
Unlike the more common Alzheimer's disease, frontotemporal dementia tends to afflict young people. It accounts for an estimated 20 percent of all cases of early-onset dementia. Patients with the illness typically begin to ...

Video game players frequently exposed to graphic content may see world differently

December 13, 2018
People who frequently play violent video games are more immune to disturbing images than non-players, a UNSW-led study into the phenomenon of emotion-induced blindness has shown.

How teens deal with stress may affect their blood pressure, immune system

December 13, 2018
Most teens get stressed out by their families from time to time, but whether they bottle those emotions up or put a positive spin on things may affect certain processes in the body, including blood pressure and how immune ...

Increased motor activity linked to improved mood

December 12, 2018
Increasing one's level of physical activity may be an effective way to boost one's mood, according to a new study from a team including scientists at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in collaboration with the ...

How bullying affects the brain

December 12, 2018
New research from King's College London identifies a possible mechanism that shows how bullying may influence the structure of the adolescent brain, suggesting the effects of constantly being bullied are more than just psychological.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.