I’ve seen a lot of crazy things in my life. I’ve been through the ringer once or twice (more like a dozen times). I’ve had a couple moments where I felt like I was at the breaking point where I’d just collapse under the crap and stress in my life. I made it through those times, and when I think back on it, I wonder… “How did I make it?”

When I was in training for military survival instructors, one of the areas that always fascinated me was the POW resistance training. Guess it’s my love of psychology and my curiosity of what makes the human mind tick that drew me to it. The goal is to prep military personnel to handle (resist) the stuff that could be thrown at them in an enemy prison. Physical torture, mental anguish, feeling like your captors are always a step ahead of you, and all the stressors pushed onto a prisoner to break their spirit and get what they want out of them whether it be vital information, propaganda material or even in some extreme cases… defection.

In some stories I’ve worked on, I’ve had to analyze characters and get a feel for where their breaking point would be. It’s generally a combination of two areas of concern that lead to a meltdown… factors that are important to a person and factors that are not important to a character but still put a drain on vital energy and mental welfare. When breaking down a POW, the captors tend to play on that second area to chip away at a prisoner’s energy and defenses and then hit them with the first area to hit them with something that might put them over the edge.

A sapling tree can only bend so far before it breaks. The weaker but steadier winds will keep bending the tree… setting it up for when a powerful gust comes along and finally snaps it. In the POW camps, it might be little things like torture, bad food, poor living conditions, lack of sleep, irritating (and repetitive) sounds, and more that slowly put a drain on energy, patience, and mental toughness. Imagine for a moment…

You’ve been stripped down and crammed into a crate not tall enough for you to stand in and not broad enough for you to actually sit. Outside the box, they have the sound of a crying baby playing over and over again on a loudspeaker. You were kept up most of the night by the guards, and they stop by your crate to make sure you don’t fall asleep. The guards also give you a small peephole and make sure they smoke, drink, and snack within your viewing range. They also use this time to gossip about how easily some of your comrades gave in, and how they could just get rid of the rest of the prisoners because they have all the info they need. Suddenly, it’s a few hours later and your crate eventually becomes a restroom as well as a bedroom. The smell starts to make you nauseous when your empty stomach isn’t rumbling. Baby screaming. Pins and needles numbness in one leg while the other begins cramping up. Eyes getting heavy. Expendable. Naked. Friends and comrades suffering the same fate.

Then they bring you into a room and hit you with stuff you care about. Factors that are important to you. They talk about your hometown. They talk about your parents discussing their current employment status and health. They talk to you about your girlfriend and what she did recently. They make you feel like they have people everywhere and everyone and everything you cared about is jeopardy. For many people who used all their energy resisting the non-essential stuff earlier, this is where they tend to find out they don’t have enough gas left in the tank to deal with matters that are actually important to them. This is where they usually break or let down their guard just enough to let their captors in.

This comes into play in the real world as well. People sweat the little things so often, they take away from the energy and time a person could devote to things more important to them and their livelihood. They put up with and tolerate too much minor crap all the time, and it bleeds them dry inside. Until something important comes along and breaks them.

So to put a character on the edge of breaking, I can toss in a variety of non-essential stressors to wear them down and then hit them with something big. And if a real person wanted to keep from breaking down, they could work through all the little stuff causing problems in their lives and eliminate them and free up energy and time to deal with bigger issues.