Deep Survival with Laurence Gonzales: How to Control Panic


When we hear the word “panic,” most of us imagine someone running around and screaming. But panic takes many forms. It can be thought of simply as any behavior that occurs when the level of stress or emotion is high enough to prevent conscious thought and deliberate decision-making.

For example, most people panic when they fall or when they’re knocked down. The panic may be brief and not very intense, such as when you slip on ice and scramble to get back up. But it can also be incredibly powerful. In the summer of 2000, a 35-year-old climber in Alberta grabbed a loose hold while soloing the southwest face of Mount Colin and fell more than 200 feet, hitting solid rock at the bottom. He died from extensive trauma, but even in his panicked state he was still trying to get back up.

In emergencies, such a powerful natural response can seem nearly impossible to suppress. On June 26, 1996, a 44-year-old man fell from a raft into the upper Hudson River near North Creek, New York. Despite being warned against doing so, he quickly tried to stand up. His foot was immediately caught between two rocks. Although the water was fairly shallow, the current pushed his upper body down and held him under. It stripped off his life vest, and he drowned. Foot entrapment is a common cause of death on rivers, because when boaters fall into the water, their momentary panic overrides the ability to think logically, and they forget what they’ve been told: Don’t stand up.

It may seem like panic is all about the mind, but panic is really about the body—or, more precisely, how you’re reacting to what the body is experiencing. This starts with fear, and fear signals the adrenal gland to release adrenaline and steroids: Blood pressure and heart rate go up, digestion stops, muscle tone changes, pupils dilate—the body, in other words, ignites its afterburners.

Panic was really useful to us once. We have inherited the structure and function of our nervous system from ancestors who lived in a very different environment, where simple, automatic actions were required for survival. A form of panic—running away or fighting without thinking, for example—was apt to keep them alive more often than not. The natural way the emotional system functions involves suppressing rational thought to clear the way for those automatic responses. If a lion is chasing you, you can’t stand around and think it over. Instead, the emotional system makes the decision and initiates the well-known fight-or-flight response (which should be called “flight-or-fight,” since the first impulse is almost always to flee).

These automatic responses can save us, sometimes. On May 9, 1999, a man was climbing in the Sandia Mountains in New Mexico when a 600-pound rock fell on top of him. Aided by a rush of adrenaline, he pushed it off. His astounded climbing partner saw the whole thing. Panic when you trip, or are about to be crushed by a 600-pound rock, has obvious survival advantages. At other times, it may lead to complex actions that seem reasonable but are based on misperceptions about what’s going on in our environment.

Paradise Springs is a privately owned sinkhole in Florida that’s used for scuba diving. Daylight fades out at a depth of about a hundred feet. At that point, divers encounter a sign that reads stop—prevent your death! go no farther. On September 22, 1996, a man and a woman with no training in cave diving descended 148 feet and into pitch darkness. Untrained divers often stir up silt in caves, reducing visibility to zero even when they carry lights. When it happened to this pair, one panicked and died, while the other remained calm and lived. Upon seeing her partner disappear into the murk, the woman jumped to the conclusion that the cave had collapsed on him. She surfaced slowly, with her regulator on, to seek help. The man, lost in the silt but otherwise unharmed, became disoriented and went the wrong way, wedging himself into a crack in the rock. Feeling trapped, he panicked, shed all his gear, and attempted a free ascent to the surface while holding his breath. Rescue divers found his body 44 feet from the surface. Had he simply remained calm and waited for the silt to settle, he would have been fine. But that’s the last thing the panicky mind wants to do. When we need quick action or superhuman strength, panic may be our ally.

But when that quick action also requires logical thinking—when, for example, you’re breathing underwater using a complex apparatus—it can sometimes incapacitate us. Remember, the higher the emotion or stress, the lower the ability to think in a step-by-step fashion. There are three important steps to take to suppress panic: Breathe, organize, act.

Controlled, steady, and deliberate breathing—not gulping air or shallow panting—will calm you down. Know that you run the risk of hyperventilating and can make yourself dizzy or even pass out. (Hyperventilation makes panic worse, because it lowers the carbon dioxide level in the blood, making you lightheaded.) Be aware of your breathing but don’t wait for a panic situation to practice it. You can do it anywhere, whether you’re stuck in traffic or watching television. The more you practice, the more naturally it will come to you when you need it.

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Get organized or die—it’s a point survival instructors always emphasize. Have a plan or make a plan. The plan should have logical steps. The steps should be small and achievable and should lead to a clear goal. The first step in getting organized is assessing your situation. For example: I’ve fallen into a river. (That might seem obvious, but denial is a powerful force that can waste precious time.) The second step is outlining the plan. For example: I’m going to float until the water is calmer, then swim for the side. Because reason and emotion are at opposite ends of a seesaw, the act of organizing forces you to think in sequential steps. That, in turn, suppresses panic.

Another form that panic may take is freezing in place, a natural response known as tonic immobility. Freezing or inaction can be just as dangerous as aimless action. Once you have a plan, act on it. Perform the steps in order. Anytime you take purposeful, directed action, you suppress panic. This, too, can be practiced anywhere. A true survival situation is often characterized by long stretches of pain or tedium punctuated by moments of terror. Even practicing simple things like unpleasant household chores (such as cleaning out an overstuffed garage) can condition you to take action. The more you practice
creating organized plans and executing them step-by-step, the better you’ll function in an emergency.
Lastly, repeated exposure to situations in which you may panic will gradually decrease the panic response. Frequent, intense training works. That’s the idea behind what the Navy SEALs call “drown-proofing,” a regimen that involves swimming with bound hands and feet. If you engage in activities that might bring on panic, you should train in situations that are as realistic as possible—the way a scuba diver will practice removing the regulator from his mouth and switching to spare or buddy breathing. Then, when actually faced with potential panic, you’ll be able to breathe, organize, and act.

Illustration by Harry Campbell

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