This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure for more information.
Rule # 57. Don’t panic.
When I got turned around while camping at Sand Ridge State Forest, it would have been easy to freak out and make a snap decision about what direction to go.
But I didn’t.
When I woke up shivering in the middle of the night when camping at Yellow River last December, it would have been natural to jump up and start throwing everything I thought might burn onto the few embers remaining from my fire.
But I didn’t.
There are countless moments in my life, from injuries to the loss of jobs, narrowly averted car crashes, and stolen identities that could have made me lose control of myself in the moment, but I managed to avoid doing that. My father used to say, “when you lose control of yourself, you lose control of the situation.” He was often referring to not losing one’s temper, but it’s also a more eloquent way of saying, “Don’t panic.”
Panic is a natural response to overwhelming stress.
Your adrenaline starts pumping, preparing your body for fight or flight. Panic can and will overwhelm reason, logical thinking, and necessary training. It’s an evolutionary response to danger and it worked well for early man as a species.
But you have to remember that what’s good for the species as a whole, isn’t always good for the individual. Further, we as adventurers often put ourselves in situations that defy the survival mechanisms that our species developed over time. For example, there are a number of scuba divers who have drowned with full air tanks; researchers finally figured out that during the course of the dive, something caused the diver to panic. This panic overrode their training and logic, and feeling as if they would suffocate because of the mask and regulator covering their face, they would remove them to try and get air. In Deep Survival, author Laurence Gonzalez described it as such;
The victims had followed an emotional response that was in general a good one for the organism, to get air. But it was the wrong response under the special, non-natural, circumstances of scuba diving. It’s possible that the impulse, the feeling of suffocation, was formed as an implicit memory by some previous experience that was not available to conscious (explicit) memory. And the divers had no way of knowing that the one thing that would keep them alive, covering the nose and mouth, was the one thing the organism would not tolerate. At the critical moment of decision, reason was not enough to overcome emotion. For no one would say that those divers believed they could breathe under water without a regulator… Most of the mystifying accidents that happen in the course of risky recreation, the seemingly illogical decisions, actions, and outcomes, can be explained by the same interplay of emotions and cognition that shapes all human behavior. What the scuba divers did made perfect sense from the point of view of the organism’s survival: The impulse to get air is automatic, and can be overpoweringly strong. Those who can control that impulse to survive, live. Those who can’t, die. And that’s the simplest way to explain survival.
Understand, I’m not criticizing those divers. They weren’t stupid. They didn’t make a poor decision- they didn’t even make a conscious decision. They reacted in a perfectly natural way, but unfortunately they did so in an environment completely unnatural to them.
“Okay Wade, I’m with you. Don’t panic… But how do I go about not panicking?”
That’s a good question, and I’ll do my best to answer it.
Three ways to prevent panic or lessen its effects.
First of all, remember that practice makes progress. The more practice you have lighting a fire, the less likely you are to panic when you need to light one in bad weather under pressure. If you learn to read a map and compass and come prepared, you’re less likely to panic if you get off course. Pick a useful skill and practice it, then always come prepared. You’re less likely to panic when you know you can count on yourself.
Second, improve your heart rate variability. While reading Dr. Kelly McGonigal’s Willpower Instinct, I learned that individuals with higher heart rate variability not only tend to make better decisions under pressure, but also worry less. That’s pretty awesome. Regular exercise will improve this, but you can also do some work with your breathing to improve your HRV. Slow, deep breaths are a good start, but if you want to do more, check our this article from Men’s Journal on changing how we breathe.
Third, learn to recognize the early signs of panic, and how to stop it from taking over. Remember the last time you watched a scary movie and how you started to feel as the tension built up? Sure, you know it’s not real, but your nervous system doesn’t! Your heart started beating harder and faster, your mouth got dry, you started to feel jittery, and maybe got a bit of tunnel vision. These are all physical effects of your fight or flight response, and the early stages of panic. If you’re in a situation and recognize these symptoms, you can take efforts to control yourself.
Breathe slowly and deeply. Reassure yourself that you’re okay. If you’re in a situation where it is safe to do so, stop and sit down until your more in control. I use a lot of self-talk to arrest panic when I feel it starting to well up; “You’re okay kid,” I’ll tell myself out loud. Or, “don’t rush, just sit for five minutes, you’ll figure this out.”
If you can recognize it and keep your cool, you’re less likely to react in a panicked state, where you’ll have much less control. Remember, as Papa Ellett said, “When you lose control yourself, you lose control of the situation.” Things like deep breathing, self-talk, and delaying action will help you maintain control when you feel like panicking.
There’s nothing we can do to keep from getting frightened and being susceptible to the biological chemistry that causes panic. It’s hardwired into our bodies and brains. We can, however, do our best to be practiced, prepared, and peaceful when stress and scares come our way. In this way, we can maintain control of ourselves and the situations in which we land.
“Rules for Intrepid Living” is an ongoing weekly article that gives potential guidelines for how we can all live a more adventurous life.