Estimated reading time: 12 minutes
Keep calm and carry on. This saying got the British people through World War II, and it can get you through the current pandemic or any other disaster that comes your way. The calmer you and the people around you are, the more rational and intelligent the choices you make will be.
When panic sets in, people make crazy decisions. This applies to sudden, shocking moments as well as protracted scenarios. People are trampled by mobs fleeing from a car backfiring, wrongly thinking it’s an active shooter. While, during a pandemic, you can see people coming to blows over toilet paper (seriously, just wash your butt as they do in the Philippines).
When people lose their cool, things get worse. In fact, panic is often a greater danger to the person panicking and the people around them than the disaster itself.
This article is a quick look at the art of staying calm and how trained soldiers and emergency personnel are taught to overcome panic in the face of disaster. We will also talk about how you can keep your cool during a prolonged scenario where you may be stuck indoors for extended periods.
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Contents Of This Article:
- Before and During a Sudden Disaster
- During and After a Protracted Disaster
- Building Panic-Resistant Groups
Why You Should Stay Calm
A famous saying by race car drivers goes: “Slow in the cockpit equals fast on the track.” in the Marine Corps, we would say, “Slow is Smooth, Smooth is fast.”
When dealing with incredibly harrowing moments, controlled and deliberate acts will always beat panicked motions. Police training talks about how a bad guy and a cop have unloaded entire magazines apiece in an elevator, neither hitting one another.
Survival requires you to stay calm and take action appropriately. Doing something correctly, even slowly, will be better than doing it incorrectly.
You need to be able to make rational, thought out decisions.
Rushing through your actions may cause you to do things out of order or do them incorrectly. If your house catches on fire and you panic, you may save your cat and call 911 as you rush through the house—but what about your Aunt who you forgot was staying over?
We Are Build To Panic
Panic is a survival instinct. When our ancient ape ancestors were forced to flee for their lives from a predator or brush fire, getting away as fast as possible was the only priority. When incredible danger arises, our adrenaline shoots up, and our brainpower shoots down. We are built to run and escape with little thought of anything else.
Our biology is made to be highly reactive, not thoughtful, in a dangerous situation. When the fight-or-flight syndrome kicks in (our ancient survival mechanism) then some predictable things happen to the brain:
- Your body produces more of the stress hormone Cortisol.
- The Cortisol goes to the prefrontal cortex (where you think critically) and slows it down.
- The amygdala (emotional part of the brain) enlarges and takes over some functions.
- The hippocampus (learning and memory center) narrows temporarily.
As you can see, dramatic changes are taking place—changes that are actively fighting against your ability to think clearly or critically. Your body wants you to panic! You must learn to control and battle through these changes.
How To Stay Calm
These are some basic steps you can take to keep yourself calm during a disaster.
Before and During a Sudden Disaster
Proper preparation and training will mitigate the worst of any scenario, and it will make survival during a disaster much easier.
Learn To Relax Yourself
A great answer to the question of “How do soldiers stay calm under fire?” was answered by a soldier who trained as a German Army paratrooper and eventually fought as part of the Kosovo Liberation Army. “They don’t.”
Soldiers are constantly scared and rarely calm, but some have learned techniques to overcome the worst of the panic. Some tell themselves that things aren’t that bad, like little mantras.
Another type of self-calming techniques is Navy Seal breathing techniques.
Prepare and Train
The more you prepare and the more confident you are in your abilities, the better you’ll be able to control your sense of urgency and worry. The more you know, train, and prepare, the less likely you are to panic.
The more realistic your training, and the more you push yourself out of your comfort zone in practice, the less likely you are to be overcome by panic in the real world.
Stock up on supplies and emergency food, and make contingency plans. Practice and talk through all of these plans. Know first aid, learn basic survival skills, and be confident in your abilities. These are key to mentally fighting panic.
Be Able to Adapt
As long as you have a goal, a mission that provides you the best chance of survival, you will be able to better focus on what needs to be done and not give into confusion and chaos.
The more options you have, the more likely you are to have a plan of action that will keep you goal-oriented. If you only give yourself a single choice, a single method of escape, when you see that option being removed you are likely to start panicking.
When acting, though, you need to focus on a single goal at a time. For example, if your house is on fire: Get the people out—done. Call 911—done. Save pets—done. Save valuables—done. Etc. If you try and do multiple things at once, you could mess them both up or give up a priority. Like the example earlier, you may save a fish and call 911 during a fire, but what about your Aunt who you forgot was staying over?
During and After a Protracted Disaster
While an active shooter or an earthquake may be sudden, diseases (like the recent coronavirus), flooding, or other disasters may last for a much longer period of time. The type of panic and mental anguish that sets in for these events will be different than those that are sudden and surprising.
Stay Emotionally Solid and Determined
People will blame themselves; they will bottle up feelings and act out in strange ways. You need to keep your emotions in check. Stay solid around others, but be honest with yourself when you need to be. Don’t repress things only to lose control later. If you are stuck indoors or having to brave some form of hardship repeatedly, you need to be aware of your own thoughts.
Stay Busy and Positive
Many who study human civilization have noted that the biggest celebrations come during the darkest or coldest months. There is a good reason for this. When things are the bleakest, that is when you need to reaffirm your connections to family and community.
Even if you can’t socialize (as in a pandemic), keeping yourself busy and active will keep your brain moving in the right direction. You may finally have an excuse to finish that book you were planning.
Keep Healthy and Clean
Building Panic-Resistant Groups
In a way, every group of people operates as a mental collective. If you have ever seen a mob or a large audience react to something, there is a collective consciousness that forms. A good leader will manipulate and control this collective consciousness for everyone’s safety.
Scientists have broken down the major variables of group panic into these elements:
- The organization of the Group.
- Presence or absence of a clear leader.
- The size of the group.
- The perceived magnitude of the danger.
- Possibility of escape.
Putting these elements into a training regime can significantly enhance the effectiveness of the response. Giving people clear jobs and roles to take (security, leadership, etc.), rehearsing proper actions to take in those roles, and mentally preparing them for the best course of action.
Church groups training for active shooters is an excellent example of this. A recent shooting had me look into this. They designate who is armed security, who gives commands, and whether people should hunker down in the pews or actively escape.
And as long as everyone understands the plan, they can avoid getting in each other’s way. Even if it isn’t the most optimized plan, it gives people a sense of control over a situation and mitigates the worst of the panic.
If you have seen that video of that church shooting, what do you think would’ve happened if after the first shot went off, people started running, climbing over pews, and obscuring the security guards’ vision of the shooter? How many more would have died in the chaos?
Instead, everyone unarmed dropped down, and armed members of the crowd calmly drew their weapons and found the target.
The Dangers of Panicking
We are going to briefly look at how panicking can make a bad situation much worse.
Panic in War
In battles up until the modern era, most casualties wouldn’t occur during the battle itself—they would happen after one side had broken and began to run away. A lack of cohesion allows people to be surrounded and decisively killed.
This is why the Roman Legions were such an impressive force. Even when losing, the legions would attempt an organized fighting retreat, allowing them to battle again the next day when other less well-trained armies would be run down and annihilated.
This same principle applies on a smaller scale to today’s battles. Every infantry unit, down to the smallest fireteam, relies on everyone in the team to do their job. You are literally watching each other’s backs. If one member succumbs to panic, the others will be left entirely exposed.
This is the point of all that intense yelling and training. You are drilled again and again and again to the point that even if your brain shuts down, your body still knows how to fight. You panic correctly, so to speak.
For civilians in war, fighting panic is just as important. The best example I can think of is the checkpoints in the Iraq war. US soldiers and civilians were all on edge due to possible explosives. Many times, a driver would misunderstand some hand signals, and the checkpoint guards would panic, thinking a car bomb was coming.
And oftentimes, these drivers would panic when they saw the guns aiming at them, and their erratic response would often cause the moment to end with death. Panic causes panic, and if you succumb to it, danger looms.
In a conflict scenario, violence is common and erratic behavior may cause people to perceive you as a threat. Panicking in these moments can easily lead to the death of you and anyone you are traveling or living with. For everyone’s sake, you must remain calm every time you step outside.
Panic During Acts of Nature
Staying calm during a disaster is key. Whether it’s a flood, fire, or disease sweeping through the community, your ability to think rationally and plan accordingly will be the difference between life and death for you and your family.
Large mobs, people rushing to buy or steal what they need, groups lashing out at people they perceive as foreign, threatening, or well-supplied. You must be just as prepared to survive the mobs of panicked people as the disaster itself.
For many, large acts of nature create a sense of collective powerlessness. Feeling helpless will feed the panic, only emphasizing your inability to take care of yourself. Keep calm, source your shelter, food, and water, and then ensure you and your family have a place to hunker down, or a plan to get moving somewhere safer.
Those who panic often rush through preparation, forgetting key necessities and causing undue hardship on themselves. Or they may simply panic and flee into oncoming danger. The better prepared you are mentally, the less prone you will be to panicking and making rash decisions.
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