Trapped Thai boys must tackle 'psychological distress' to survive in cave - expert

With rescue plans still in progress, the trapped boys' football team in Thailand will have to endure more long, dark days in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave. But a psychology expert says the boys' youth will hold them in good stead, as long as they remain hopeful. 

It's looking likely the 12 boys and their coach will have to leave the way they came in. The problem is that it's flooded. Heavy rains trapped the group two weeks ago, and with the monsoon season expected to kick in this weekend, there's a chance they may have to stay in the cave until the weather clears up in four months. 

That's a long time to for the boys, aged 11 to 16, and their coach, 25, to be alone with their thoughts. But the boys have a psychological advantage being young, according to a psychology lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington. 

Professor Marc Wilson says a study looking at when people developed specific phobias suggests that fear of enclosed spaces (claustrophobia) has one of the latest onsets (around 20 years), which "might lead us to think that it's the adults who may deal least well with the confinement".

The uncertainty of not knowing if you'll be found is extremely stressful, Professor Wilson told Newshub. He said fear of the unknown is one of the main components of "death anxiety". But the boys now have hope, after they were discovered on Tuesday by British divers sent into the cave by the Royal Thai Navy. 

A depiction of where the boys are trapped.
A depiction of where the boys are trapped. Photo credit: Newshub

The boys' first question to rescuers was what day it was, as they were disoriented and confused after over a week sitting in the dark. The rescuers told the boys they had been there for nine days, and that they were "very, very strong". 

Professor Wilson says it's easy to become disoriented without a light source associated with a day-night scale, which is why the boys would have found it difficult to tell time - not to mention the association between light and how it can affect mood. 

"Solitary people in such conditions quite quickly start to show signs of psychological distress," Professor Wilson says. "These folk have had each other and that will have made it easier in some ways.

"Some people cope really well with it, while others find it extremely aversive. There is a whole theory of terror management that is based on the idea that just thinking about the uncertainty of death is so aversive that it changes the way we think." 

He said experimental studies have shown people become more politically conservative and religious when invited to think about death and dying - and that's just in a five-minute intervention. 

The boys' location in Thailand.
The boys' location in Thailand. Photo credit: Newshub

The boys' story has hit close to home for two Australian men who were saved from a collapsed mine in Tasmania in 2006, after spending 14 days trapped underground. A magnitude 2.2 earthquake struck while Brant Webb and Todd Russell were attaching wire mesh to the side of a tunnel 925m below ground, causing their surroundings to collapse. 

"We didn't think we were going to get out. We lied to each other, and it worked for each other - we told each other we were going to be reunited with our families," Mr Webb told Newstalk ZB, recalling how he survived on half a muesli bar while he was trapped. 

He said the trapped Thai boys are lucky to be dry, have water and hope, and will benefit from the company they keep. 

"They have loads of people to talk to. Todd and I had only ourselves," he said. 

The boys' situation also bears similarities to a 2010 incident where 33 men were trapped for 69 days after a mine collapsed in Chile. One of the survivors, Omar Reygadas, told the Associated Press it's important the Thai boys work together if they want to survive. 

"It's terrible for them, they're little, but I believe that boys with a lot of strength are going to manage to be whole when they get out," he said, emphasising the importance of the boys channelling their focus into getting out and being reunited with their families. 

Professor Wilson echoed Mr Reygadas' sentiment, saying it's "understandable and natural" for the boys to be upset, frightened and anxious. But rather than focus on those fears and emotions, he'd recommend they distract themselves from negative thoughts. 

It seems the boys' main advantage is that they have each other, which is something we all crave when we're faced with uncertainty and precarious situations.