Panic by definition is a sudden overpowering terror that clouds your judgment and forces you to make mistakes. As history showed, in wars, national emergencies and local disasters, panic can trigger profound dysfunction, stilling your very instinct to survive. If you want to survive when it hits the fan, you should learn how to deal with panic and its effects.
Panic is also a contagious dysfunction and even if you manage to keep your cool, other members from your party will make things worse for the rest of you. When a theater catches on fire, one screaming person rushing for the nearest door is all it takes to spread panic. The masses follow, one piling over the other.
Panic is a personal thing. It may be a phobia or a self-limiting behavior that keeps you off a boat, or off a ski lift. Perhaps you go crazy at the sight of a snake, or your skin crawls in the presence of a spider.
Panic is universal, and evidence shows that well-adjusted individuals do panic. The key element, precipitating panic—in even the most autonomous of us—is sudden exposure to the unfamiliar . . . and the unexpected.
Let’s identify the hierarchy of panic: the stages of its development and the predictable responses to this physical/mental upset.
First off, let’s set the scene. Imagine you are caught in a storm at sea. Okay. That could be frightening, but no need to panic, right? At the time, your wife and kids are forward in the cabin trying to get the radio to work, while you and your buddy are tinkering with the engine that has just stalled. There’s a loose wire dangling from the ignition, so you grab it and touch it to the coil. The small spark at the pole ignites the gas fumes in the bilge. The explosion blows you against the bulkhead. Fire is everywhere.
Related article: Being In Denial – A Disaster Won’t Happen To Me
To make things worse the boat broaches and a monstrous wave swamps the deck—the hold fills as a ladle dipped in a rain barrel. The water shorts out the pumps. Lightning flashes and cracks overhead. Yes, indeed it’s time to panic! A full-blown panic is in order. Let yourself go. Get the adrenaline flowing. Scream, holler, rant and rave!
Okay, okay! That’s great. But enough thrashing and writing about the deck. Pretty good show though. All but the part where you grabbed the last life-jacket right out of your kid’s hands. Common! Get control of yourself.
Here you are three phases deep in panic and you didn’t even recognize phase one and two. Let’s back up a little—run the dock in reverse—to the calm before the storm, and sec just how you got yourself into this mess. And perhaps more important, how you are going to get out of it.
Your first response, call it the calm before the storm, is punctuated by under activity, apathy, and ineffective preparation for the impending disaster.
Perhaps you feel it’s an inconvenience to be prepared, to practice rescue and survival procedures. An ounce of prevention just isn’t worth the time.
Anyway, fate is on your side, right! Besides, you’re not the captain of this expedition, it’s your buddy’s boat. It’s his job to protect you.
This fatalistic, “let the other guy do it” approach to disaster avoidance may be deadly.
In fact, this is the case for all those people thinking the government will take care of them or some divinity (depending on their religion) will save them in the last moment. You know, the people making fun of preppers. The same people that are cannibalizing supermarkets when the first snowflake hits the ground.
Panic response two is aptly described by the old say: “too little, too late.” Disaster is moments away. The storm is kicking up. Since you haven’t provided sufficiently for response one, everyone is now hounding you for information and instruction. They want answers—right now—when it’s too late.
Efforts to salvage the situation are unorganized. Roles are duplicated, time is wasted and events unfold faster than you can react to them. Truly, your fate is in the hands of God. Of course, a few may believe magic will contain the impending event. Others become overactive, but their efforts are random and ineffective. This is the first stage of true panic.
You and the other victims are one breath away from irrational, self-destructive behavior. Now, logic takes a hack seal to the herd instinct. There appears to be only one escape route, and everyone uses it. For example, if you were in a hotel fire, many safety and avoidance exits would be ignored while bodies clog at the door or masses become trapped in an elevator. But In your case—a disaster at sea—people are fighting over too few life-jackets.
This is lull blown panic. The boat is sinking. Everyone is in the water and your only efforts arc to stay alive. You claw for something to hang onto and you are confused. Strangely enough, the others—your buddy, wife and kid – are reacting without emotion. They are docile, indecisive, withdrawn.
Either response means the same things: all members of the group are in a panic – fighting or fleeing. Their behavior is aimless and their thought patterns are random without a certain goal. They sweat, have tremors, startle easily and are swallowing water.
Finally, the full impact of the disaster is over. Somehow you survived while others have not. Still, others, who have panicked are strongly dependent on your stable leadership. They are childish and childlike. They will follow you, their chosen leader and they are fiercely loyal.
Once the storm is over and you have survived it, the time is to nurture. If your disaster had been land-based, you could administrate a hot beverage to calm down people. But you are at sea, neck deep in water and a hot beverage is out of the question.
Explain to the survivors they have survived the crisis. It may not be obvious for some and they will continue to panic and act irrationally. Stay close and support them, encourage them and try to take care of their needs as well as you can. Assure and reassure them everything is under control and that they are now safe, in good hands. Rescue is imminent.
Of course, that rescue may not be imminent and maybe you did not survive the scenario depicted above. Maybe no one survived. That being the case, let’s see what we can do better to make such a scenario and others become a happy reality and not a grim statistic.
Remember panic response APATHY . . . Where no one assumed responsibility for the mission. In any survival situation, it is important for someone to take charge, to assume leadership afield or afloat.
This person should require party members to practice self-rescue procedures. But practice isn’t enough—everyone should be given an opportunity to participate actively with the impending disaster. That is, they should Imagine with the help of a leader all the possible scenarios, and all the appropriate steps to take should a particular disaster occur.
This little act of make-believe may save lives should the fantasy become a horrible reality. This is what common folks fail to understand and they keep on going mocking us and our lifestyle. By pro-acting to a disaster instead of reacting to it, you and your crew have eliminated most of the unexpected … And remember it’s the unexpected that precipitates panic.
However, only supreme beings can prevent storms and who could plan for a motorboat failure? So when the event is imminent, a true leader must emerge from the chaos! Loud, clear, orders must be issued. Advice must he specific and simplified. Everyone should have a task. Survival equipment should be distributed (i.e., life-jackets, rafts, medical kits, blankets, fire extinguishers, weapons . . . whatever is appropriate).
When the event catapults out of control, remember your first reflexive response is probably wrong. Don’t move for a moment and sort out the alternatives. Then make a decision, put your plan into action. But be prepared to alter your plan as events dictate. Keep the victims at task and encourage them. Give them specific survival duties. Try to isolate those who have gone off the deep end—they can stir the others into irrational behavior.
Recognizing panic in the eyes
Fear and paranoia are not easily hidden. Learn to read the eyes of each member in your party:
- dilated pupils are a tipoff
- their eyes may blink rapidly
- they look down
They may bury their head in a pillow, blanket or hide in the corner of a room. If you cannot persuade them into action, you may have to blindfold them and lead them from the event, much like a horse caught in a burning barn.
Panic is caused by fear and fear is caused by various factors. Fear of animals, insects, height, fire—the list goes on and on, and are all human responses to lack of control.
People suffering from phobias or panic attacks have a strong need to control themselves and their environment. They are experts at making excuses and practicing avoidance. And People with phobias are all of us.
Maybe you find it fearful to stand In front of a crowd and give a speech. Or you are uncomfortable cocooned in a plane at 35.003 feet. Perhaps the sudden appearance of a mouse of spider makes you recoil. You may jump three feet high when a snake crosses your path.
These are normal responses. Remember, the unexpected unnerves all of us, but you can cut your losses and gain control over your fear.
Here’s how to do it:
1. You must accept your phobia. You are not crazy. Don’t fight your fees. Yes, you are uncomfortable, but the feeling will pass. The key is you are likely not in danger.
2. Face your fear. Expose yourself to the stimulus. Don’t close your eyes or bury your head. Look at It and study that which terrifies you. First, try to experience the phobia at a safe distance. For example, go to herpetarium in the zoo and put your hand against the glass that houses the poisonous snake. Study the snake and look at It in detail.
3 Don’t flee. You may back off, sure, but don’t run from the supposed danger. When you have composed yourself, face it again.
4. Teach yourself to expect the best, not the worst. II you are cowering in a gondola, climbing to the top of the ski lift, don’t even consider that it may fall. Think about it taking you to the top of the mountain, where you can enjoy a glorious day of skiing.
Remember, in a survival situation phobias get in the way. You must defuse these fears now, so in a true life and death struggle, you are unhindered by self-limning behavior.
MEDICAL ADVISORY: if panic attacks continue and become more frequent you may need professional medical help. There are all sorts of antidepressant drugs that may help control panic attacks. However, you should understand that these types of drugs may not be available during a crisis. Rather than stockpiling such pills, do some therapy and learn how to get rid of your phobias or keep them under control.
Related reading: Surviving Stress and PTSD
A final word on panic and paranoia
This is what you can expect when the unexpected and unfamiliar comes knocking at your door. Fear, panic, and paranoia —instinctive responses and learned behaviors we must learn to deal with.
Successful field experiences build your repertoire of defensive measures. It gains you confidence, but you can never know too much about the activity you are about to pursue. Seek training. Take your first steps into the unknown with experts. Model their behavior.
Then visit the wilderness often, learn from the woods, learn from the sea. Have a pattern for your encounter, a blueprint for survival, the countdown to your adventure by practicing emergency procedures beforehand. Establish a leader. Go over all the possible scenarios in your mind. Plan your escape and be prepared to implement your plan.