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How to prevent panic

Officers who have attended the Calibre Press Street Survival Seminar know that we start with (and constantly reinforce) the need to have your beliefs in place and expect the unexpected. We talk about being optimists. We talk about having our sense of mission and our warrior values in mind every day as we go about the mundane yet dangerous task of policing in today’s environment. Those of you who have been to the Seminar also know that from time to time in my presentation, I tend to include a gem of important insight I’ve found during my research.

One such gem is the work of a fellow named Enrico Quarantelli, PhD., a Sociologist whose studies include human reaction to disasters. One of the areas Henry Quarantelli has examined is the mental state that causes panic.

Panic is an odd phenomenon. We tend to think of panic happening to crowds of people caught in a fire or some such situation. We may have even experienced it once or twice in our lives as that horrible state of mind where we just lose our rational mind and run wildly or stand dumbstruck. We often see videos of terrible tragedies such as a fire in a disco where as the flames start to grow in plain sight people seem to be just milling about. In fact, the term used to describe such victim behavior is “milling.”

Panic may have served us in pre-history, an environment where “freezing” or running away madly may pay off. In that jungle wilderness the threat was simple: we were the middle link in the food chain. Unfortunately, in today’s world most of our defensive responses are disabled by panic behavior and in the Seminar we show several videos where panic behaviors (including the attendant screaming and other vocalizations) are apparent.

But what is happening in the mind of the person panicking? What conditions have to occur for that terrible moment and since panic is a performance destroyer of the highest level how do we prevent it if possible? While at the University of Chicago, Doctor Quarantelli discovered the mental state of the panicking person.

In understanding panic, we can find the antidotes for it. Three mental conditions for an individual to panic (whether standing in a crowd in a soccer stadium or facing a carbine-toting dirtbag) are:

1. Trapped — a sense of nowhere to run, nowhere to go.
2. Isolation — we are mentally a single being, whether physically alone against an enemy or being swept along in a fatal crush with a multitude of others.
3. Helplessness — a sense that “I can do nothing; have no skill to choose that matters, no way to win.”

Common sense you say? Sure, but you can see how in the face of a novel threat like a nightclub fire, an earthquake, or some other catastrophe each of us faces the potential of panic if we haven’t done some basic things or have some basic tools.

First is faith — true faith means can you never feel abandoned. I am not going to argue this. Do your own research.

Second, believe your life is a mission, a meaningful and important path that you have chosen and make a difference in doing.

Third: train, train, train. Make it realistic, emotional, and intense! Training is a form of inoculation that makes us more resilient and resistant to such things as PTSD, coming in second in a fight, and most relevant to this discussion, panic.

Finally, attend to the world around you and constantly “what if” so you live in “when/then” awareness. Luck is a state of mind and we make our own by being ready to act when the time comes, whatever may occur. We don’t live in fear, we live prepared.

That alone is one of the greatest tonics to prevent the moment of mental failure we call “panic!”

Further Reading:

The Survivors Club by Ben Sherwood

The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley

The Survivor Personality by Al Siebert

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