People Who Panic During An Emergency

I’ve read statistics that 80 to 90 percent of people will panic during an emergency. Or will be unable to stay calm during an emergency or survival situation. This leaves just 10 to 20 percent who are less likely to panic. Those who will be able to grasp the situation more clearly.

Have you ever noticed others who panic during an emergency? Or, those who will panic in a situation much less than an emergency?

Extreme panic may cause someone to become paralyzed with fear or indecision. Unable to do anything, or to take the right kind of action. If a decision is made, it’s often a bad one.

Here’s a related general observation that I’ve noticed… When there is a group of people who all are within a given emergency situation (or potential emergency)… If there’s someone in the group in a vocal panic, the situation is often worsened. This is due to some of the others who will start ‘going off the edge’ while the person in panic is spouting out all the wrong things… If you happen to be in this situation (and you are not in a panic), you may need to take control. Most people are followers, and you might not want them following someone who’s “off the rails” in a panic.

People Who Don’t Panic During An Emergency

There are a lot of factors that will apparently affect whether or not someone will panic. Ultimately, one never knows until a real condition arises.

To practice, to drill, train, learn solutions to potentially disastrous scenarios. The ability to adapt, to think on your feet. To think scenarios through ahead of time, etc.. all of the above should help.

A major problem often arises when someone has not ever even considered what they would do if ‘this’ happens or ‘that’ happens. Having said that, it does apparently come more natural for some than others (the ability to correctly assess and act).

People who don’t panic during an emergency will be able to think more rationally. Clearer. Observe the emergency situation in a more calm way that enables a potentially correct plan or set of actions.

Those who do not panic are not necessarily free of fear. They may actually be puckered up and ‘scared $hitless’ (panic and fear I believe are two different things). The difference? While perhaps filled with fear, those who don’t panic may better able to maintain their sensibility.

Observations Regarding Panic During Emergency

A few comments on this topic from Modern Survival Blog readers:

Slow Motion – Time Alteration

I have noticed that in emergency situations such as automobile accidents, people choking on food, snake bite, etc.. I tend to see/experience the situation in slow motion. And I get an extremely calm feeling where my thinking is clear and logical. I don’t have conscious control of this it just happens so I guess you either naturally have it or not.

The experience of time alteration is very common during times of extreme stress, such as a car accident, combat, and other, sudden, life threatening, situations. This is an inherited trait, which many do not have.

A person possessing this survival trait has the ability to speed up their ability to perceive sensory experience and process thought. When such a mind automatically goes into “high gear” the increased ability to fathom the surrounding action allows a better chance of survival.

When the event causing the mind to speed up is remembered, the mind is no longer running at the speed with which it gathered and processed the experience. Thus, the event is recalled in extreme detail, as if everything had slowed down during the event. As if a camera records the action at high speed, but the film it produced is viewed at a normal speed…making the action seem to be happening in slow motion.

Panicked People Can’t See The Solution Right In Front Of Them

Pumping gas at a station in a grocery store parking lot – a wood-chip filled parking island 15 feet from the pumps was smoldering pretty heavy.

I watched various people try pouring water from little bottles on it, stomping on it, etc. – people were yelling and generally milling about as the fire got larger.

I finished pumping, grabbed an extinguisher from the gas pump, walked over and doused the flames. Put the extinguisher back and got in my truck as people were just staring open-mouthed as if I had just performed magic. They won’t last long in a SHTF scenario.

Panicked And Running Off At The Mouth

It may be argued that letting the panic-filled person who is running off at the mouth, continue his/her rant and they may then lead the group over the cliff. Thus causing an important diversion in which you may take care of business. Herds can be useful. How many old westerns have you seen when they run a panicked herd thru the town as cover. Just sayin’, use all tools available.

Brain Filters Information During Extreme Danger

During extreme danger, the brain filters out information that is not important for coping with the danger, letting in only information necessary for making survival decisions.

This filtration process is person dependent. With some people there is little or no filtration, and as a result there is sensor over load ( the person freezes up- no decision – no action or erratic behavior.

Erratic behavior happens when there is a rush of adrenalin. Time seems to stand still because the brain is busy filtering every thing out that is not really important at that instant. Training (such as combat training) helps manage this.

Retired combat instructor.

The Value Of Training And Experience

I’ve heard it said this way, “From experience comes knowledge. And from knowledge comes confidence.”

As a military veteran, former LEO and commercial pilot, I can’t overemphasize the value of training and experience.

As you can imagine with this kind of career path, I’ve experienced a number of precarious situations. But with proper training and confidence in my abilities, equipment and others in the field, I was always able to control my fear and never found myself in a panic.

By the way, it is also said that you should “learn from the mistakes of others. You won’t live long enough to make them all yourself.” From their experience comes knowledge, too. I’m happy to say that I’m enjoying my retirement years.

Why is it that some people panic, and make very poor decisions, while others are able to cope with the situation in a much clearer manner – and make better decisions?

Is it from lack of experiences in a given emergency situation? Is it from a lack of knowledge or training for a situation? Or is it just part of the DNA?

34 Comments

  1. Just because one has experienced an event does not mean they will not panic or make bad decisions in the face of adversity. My wife went through the Loma Prieta earthquake and ever since that experience, her reaction to power outage, earthquake or wildfire is to grab every single flashlight and radio and place them on the kitchen table. Initially, this can be a good instinct but panic can turn this behavior into a counterproductive behavior. Sometimes, one needs to speak up and point out the differences between productive vs counterproductive behavior at normal volume instead of waiting for the situation to worsen and be another person yelling in the room.

    Another example of bad decisions was when I observed a low speed parking lot collision at a Junior College parking lot and one of the cars was leaking gasoline in a growing puddle. I pulled into a spot, saw+smelled the puddle and got back in my truck and parked somewhere else far away. My girlfriend at the time was yelling at me because she did not want to walk that far to her classes. She did not understand that one must make room for the fire department to drive their big truck to the site in order to disperse foam and contain the spill. She did not think it through how dangerous it can be to stand or park within a pool of gasoline.

    I do not pretend to know why some people panic. I just accept the fact that many people do and, at my age, I try to put some distance between me and them these days. My wife is getting better about asking me what I think about some things when faced with winter storm or oncoming fires. Half of the decisions I make are to take into account the behaviors or the masses that are in panic or are rioting. (ie. going to the store in order to top off supplies is a bad idea because it is now too late).

  2. Experience, observation, self-discipline, past success in dealing with panic-stirring situations, adaptability, scenario-based mental practice/visualization exercises, in-born personal characteristics, a well-grounded faith that offers anchor points, good on-site leadership that takes charge — all offer ways of dealing with panic. Preparedness helps. Left of Bang philosophy. After seeing this article finally bought the book. Book is available through Ken’s link.

    1. I was abroad when the 1993 attack occurred at CIA hq. Folks at a stop light waiting to turn off the highway and in to work were shot in their cars by a guy walking up from his car in the line. Completely outside of anyone’s experience or expectations. It was years before the shooter was apprehended. Increased my awareness to include threats agains guv workers at home. A couple years later an American woman posted to a predominately Muslim country was targeted and killed. I was serving in the region and had always felt relatively safe as females were not known to be deliberately attacked. My perspective changed overnight. Living near the WA coast, I’m as ready as I can be for earthquakes, volcanos, and tsunamis. Someone living in Nebraska might not be. However, the tornado that touched down about ten miles from here a year ago really shook me up. So I guess expectations inform our reactions to catastrophe.

  3. I grew up in South Florida where the Everglades were my playground. Had many run in’s with gators and snakes. Also been in more hurricanes than I can recall. Served as an Operating Room Tech for 14 years and saw lots of panic situations happen. Such as, Auto crash victims, gunshot wounds, knifings.

    The only thing that still gives me “the willies” is the raw evil of a large Gator stalking me, which has happened from time to time.

    I believe that we are mentally prepared for when the SHTF, and I believe it will be soon.

    1. That’s the opposite of the Article, if I see you panicking and running down the road I’m going to assume you are being chased by a giant gator, and it makes logical sense to panic just like you are doing so I can run faster than you and put you between me and the giant gator.

      If you can keep your head, when all other lose theirs, you probably don’t understand the depth of the trouble you are in.

  4. We are progressing through a “minor” pandemic and we can all see the results of chaos incurred on to the western civilizations which are being run by political hacks and lackey bureaucrats. I don’t know about panic setting in by those in charge or just sheer incompetence.
    Let’s just hope a real major pandemic doesn’t come along.

    I’ve witnessed a situation where 150+ persons were killed by management staff who were very highly educated but were put in charge of a highly dangerous operation. When a disaster occurred this highly qualified management went doe eyed. It was only fortunate that there were some middle management staff who were ex military and these guys saved many lives.

    I fear the “Safe Space” generation who will become government leaders in the future.

    1. I’d really like to see Fauci demand mask use for something spread by rats or mosquitoes.

    2. Boneidle,
      It shows how easy it is to program people into a panic. There is much to say about that, but unfortunately it’s the way it is today…

    3. Much of the panic seen in this “pandemic” has been generated by the very people whose jobs are to actually quell panic. This is unfortunate, as if something REALLY bad comes along, much of the population will blow off the warnings, seeing them as more political theater.

      A lot of panic avoidance comes from shutting off the TV and computer, and looking around you to see what’s actually going on…

  5. Having been in several ‘tight’ situations over the years, I have been surprised at how seemingly normal, reasonable people, have panicked when things go awry.
    Kind of reminds me of a herd of deer taking flight at the sight of danger.
    In our ‘DNA’ maybe ?

    1. Deepest South: Perhaps DNA, perhaps upbringing (raised around assorted farm critters, and parents did not encourage irresponsibility and stupidity) are what forms our behavior. The good Lord has allowed me to be in place to save a life on two occasions, perhaps to atone for previous bad behavior, anyway I like to think so. On one occasion I experienced the slow motion described, the other I have no memory of going from point A to point B, or deciding what to do, I just went from where I was to where I needed to be. No heroics, maybe instinct?

      1. Know what you mean. I worked in a chain Mexican restaurant in 1990. There was an older couple who came in often. Wife had had a stroke it was obvious, could not speak well or walk well. One day they were in with some younger family members when the wife began to choke on a chicken enchilada. The young people became hysterical, Do something do something ahhhhh, grandma, help her… The break room had a Heimlich poster on the wall which came in handy. So here I go trying not to hurt the frail lady, up came the enchilada. That was that and life went on. All from just reading a poster.

  6. Routines.

    People have their normal routines. They’re ‘etched in stone’, so to speak. Hour-to-hour, Day-to-day, Week-to-week.

    If and when any of these routines are unexpectedly or abruptly disrupted, some of these people may panic or ‘brain freeze’ at the onset of disruption. Their minds cannot, or are slow to adapt to the situation. It inhibits their ability to ‘reason’ their way out of it… To figure out what to do next.

    They become stupified (a state of stupification. Stupid?). A blank look on their faces… You’ve seen the look, right?

  7. Ken J.,
    exactly, when most peoples normal routines are disrupted they are lost, confused and will just stand there like a deer in the headlights with a look of utter hopelessness waiting for someone, anyone to tell them what to do.
    that’s when the people who have been through hardships in their lives will hopefully point them to the fire exit.
    don’t discount the homeless. they know how to survive, better than most.
    the homeless will survive when the snowflakes have died trying to google themselves a way out of a burning building with the door right in front of them.
    displaced persons have survival instincts learned the hard way. and a lot can be learned from them.
    it’s all about life lessons learned and applied.
    there is no substitute for experience. for some it’s just ” well, here we go again” : )

  8. As others have said, the best defense against panic is “live” training, as realistic as possible. But how do you train for accidents, disasters, real “off normal” events?. We need to be actively be running these scenarios thru our heads from time to time, adjusting our “pretend” responses as our situations change. In real life dangers, I have always found a quick prayer ( God give me strength! Help me!) Have brought me calm, then a pause to assess the situation, before acting. If I just jump into a situation without these, I get panicky and am lost.

    1. I was out surfing one day and there was a trained lifesaver out swimming who was having a panic attack. I rescued her but she was pushing me under the water in order to save herself, people in a panic will kill you to save themselves if given the chance.

      The thing is, she was trained I wasn’t. I think it’s more the person that decides panic, training helps, but if you are that kind of person you will do it anyway.

      1. will,
        Back during my college days, I received lifeguard training for a part-time job. One of the things we were taught was just as you described. Panic in the water. The person may try and climb up on top of you during the rescue during their panic. We were taught to go down under the water if they did that, so they would let go (and not drown you!). Then come up and re-attempt calming. There was a certain grip to hold them too if they were panicked – during the retreat back to shore. Anyway, it brought back memories… Fortunately I never had that happen to me during my shifts.

        1. Thats also why they train you to drag that rescue buoy whenever you go out for a rescue, getting the person to grab that usually calms them down, usually,

  9. and there are those who don’t panic,
    “No, no, I’ve got ’em right where I want ’em – surrounded from the inside.” — Mad Dog Shriver when told to break up his recon team and evade, that he was about to be overrun by North Vietnamese Regulars.
    –Gut’s, they don’t make em like they use to.

  10. I have been in 1 auto accident and 1 almost auto accident. Both times I saw the car coming in slow motion, or like a it was there, next it was closer and then it was on top of you, but stopped after each time. It is difficult to explain. I thought I was nuts. Glad to hear I wasn’t.
    I am good in a panic situation, it is after it is all over that I fall apart.

    1. I was driving a friend to a doctor’s apt. A car was in the entry to a parking lot, and I saw it start to move. I was going the speed limit, but too close to stop. I had two choices–try to stop, and possibly broadside the car, or accelerate. I chose the latter. That car ran across four lanes of traffic and barely managed to stop before it ran off the other side of the road. I think he wanted us to broadside him.

      Yes, everything slowed down. I’m watching angles, stomping the gas, spinning out into the far lane to give myself space, then it was behind us. I’m just glad no one else was on the road at that point.

      I’ve had that happen before. My brother’s a berserker, maybe it’s related.

          1. Lauren,
            Nope. About the only racing he didn’t do. Formula 1, indyCar and NASCAR.
            Quite the celebrated racing career. From the late 50s to early 90s. He and his twin brother, Aldo.
            Yep, my Dad loved Mario and all things racing, and I was Daddys girl, so I learned alot from him.
            That and 5.00 will get ya a cup of coffee.( inflation ya know, lol)
            Peace
            MadFab

          2. I was referring to the idea that if I was racing cars I’d probably be into demolition derbies. : )

        1. My brother tells the story of being mugged in another country. Three guys walk up and demand their money, one has a knife. My brother dropped his bag, and the next thing he remembers he had the knife and the three idiots were running for their lives.

  11. This perception of time slowing down mentioned in
    Ken’s writing is interesting.

    I recall two times in my life, one was a car accident where everything was moving very slowly at literally 60mph and the other when I witnessed a close friend getting hit by a car when he was within a few feet of me.

    I remember those incidents being mentally draining after the fact but the adrenaline was flowing keeping me active at the time.

    If you could access that at will, if you could turn that on and off, that would change everything.
    It might also burn out or harm the individual that was capable of it.

    1. Maybe this is just the activation of a larger portion of our brains.

      Muscles do something similar. Normally they work in shifts, but in an emergency some people can activate all the muscles at the same time, doing things they normally would not be capable of. Severe muscle starvation, cramps and other muscle problems afterward, but in that moment they are superman.

  12. – I have never been one of those people who panic easily. The worst I have had happen is, you do what you have to in an emergency, life-threatening situation, and then well everything is said and done, get a good case of the shakes, along with a little nausea.

    I have experienced that time slowing down thing, but only occasionally. I have usually dealt with the bad stuff at normal speed.

    The Heimlich was mentioned above. I have done that enough times to be able to add, be sure when they have collapsed, and when you do that upward thrust, make sure they are not aimed at you. A wad of chewing tobacco is disconcerting when it whizzes past your ear. (yes, I have done men, women, children and infants. The chewing tobacco was technically from a child who shouldn’t have had access to the stuff)

    – Papa S.

  13. A good way to practice for emergencies is to use situational awareness, every day, all day. Know where you are and what and who is around you. Keep track of the time and the weather, and the seasons and the temperature. Of course, staying hydrated and alert is needed. You don’t obsesses with situational awareness, you just take note of these things, and when they become habits, it will help ease any unease you have, and make you more confident about going out and doing things. Play the “what if” game. What if that knot of people get louder and angrier? What if I don’t check outside before going out the door? (peephole or window) What if I have a flat, or my vehicle stops running in a sketchy part of town? What if there’s no gas available tomorrow, or electric? Like a blogger I know says, “Never underestimate the power of a question”. You don’t have to talk, just think like you’re nosy. Ask yourself, a lot of questions, every day.

  14. Proper prior planning prevents piss poor performance. The 85 percent who fail to react or react inappropriately do so for several reasons.

    1. they assume someone else will handle the situation.

    2. The attitude of, it hasn’t happened before, so it will not happen and its brother, it has happened and won’t happen again.

    3. lack of training, whether is its inability to perform cpr, swim and use a fire extinguisher gets people dead.

    4. rule followers. this group, sits and waits for someone to tell them what to action to take. These people die.

    5. lack of physical fitness.

    6. Older and obese people have more difficulty escaping danger.

  15. David,

    Great post; especially notable the “it has happened and won’t happen again.” A lot of people get blindsided because of that one. When my kids were first riding bikes on the road, it was drilled into them to use eyes *and* ears, but also to remember that the sounds of one vehicle can cover the sound of another. That learning alone, prevented more than a few emergency situations from even happening.

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