Understanding the Nature of Panic

The other night, I woke up about three o’clock in the morning in what I would consider a state of “panic.” I was sweating profusely, my breathing my shallow and fast, my heart was racing, I was disoriented. As I got control of myself, I realized...


The other night, I woke up about three o’clock in the morning in what I would consider a state of “panic.” I was sweating profusely, my breathing my shallow and fast, my heart was racing, I was disoriented.  As I got control of myself, I realized I’d been having a typical “cop dream.” This one involved my family and their safety and my inability (in my dream) to protect them, so I got up and started checking the kids and the house, making sure my dream wasn’t real. 

The two kids who live at home were sound asleep, the doors were locked tight, and my German shepherd-mix was sleeping in his customary spot in our entryway, where he has access to the front and back doors as well as to the stairs that lead to our bedrooms.  That he merely opened his eyes and gave me a curious look was a pretty good indication that all was well.  I went back to bed but of course I couldn’t sleep, so I started pondering the nature of panic. 

My husband, Dave Smith and I, have been studying and teaching the nature of panic for years; but we really started to study it in-depth when author Ben Sherwood wrote “The Survivor’s Club.”  Sherwood calls panic the “Archenemy of Survival.”    

The word “panic” is derived from the Greek god Pan, who is said to have ruled the woods and the fields, stirring up mysterious sounds causing “contagious and groundless fear in herds or crowds or in people in lonely spots.”  It’s also described in the dictionary as “fright, terror, dread, alarm, horror.”  In our officer survival classes, we call it “Condition Black.”  Every young cop has a moment or two (or more) in the academy where they panic during scenario training, on the range, or even during an exam.  Panic is a normal human response to many different stimuli, but once we understand it, we’re better able to control it.

First of all, there is a great deal of mythology concerning panic.  We often think of “panic” as people running around, screaming, totally out of control. Certainly this happens, but not as often as you think.  Research tells us that during horrible events such as the Japanese earthquake of 1995 or the terror attacks of 9-11-01 most people rarely lost control; rather, they froze and waited to be told what to do.  Cops see this on a smaller scale almost every day.  How many times have you pulled up on a multiple-vehicle crash scene or responded to a “fight in progress” at the local watering hole and started issuing some strong verbal commands.  Most people will listen and do what you say.  Their brain is waiting to be snapped out of that frozen state, and that’s what you, the authority figure, provide. 

Lee Clarke, a sociologist atRutgersUniversity, says there’s a widespread misconception that in panic-inducing situations like fires and aviation accidents, humans become animalistic.  Commercial plane crashes are a perfect example of this.  Most of the time, when a plane goes down and there are survivors, we hear stories of heroism and altruism, people tend to bind together in the aftermath and help each other.  Even the narcissistic individuals who selfishly climb over seats or other people to get out of a burning plane aren’t “panicking” in the true sense.  They are responding rationally to a life threatening crisis; they’re just more self-centered than most.   

Panic is three simultaneous states of mind or beliefs about yourself or the situation.  In his signature training class “The Winning Mind©” Dave Smith calls this “The Three Legged Stool of Panic.”  Those “legs” of a panicked mindset are “I’m All Alone,” “I Have Nowhere to Go,” and “I Can’t Handle This.”  If we can take away any one of those legs, panic does not occur.  So how does this apply to you?

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