People Who Panic In An Emergency


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

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

Those who do not panic will observe an emergency situation in a more calm way that enables a clearer ‘thinking’ plan and potentially correct action.

Those who do not panic are not free of fear – they may actually be puckered up and ‘scared $hitless’ (panic and fear I believe are two different things). The difference is that while someone may be filled with fear, those who do not panic will be more realistically facing the actuality of what just happened and better able to maintain their sensibility.

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.

A person who does not panic, and even while in immediate danger may be able to react very quickly. But if there’s time, those who do not panic might take a few slow deep breaths and will not rush to make a hasty decision (important!). Too often people will make rapid (and poor) decisions when there is time to think it through. Much effort is wasted and time lost due to this unfortunate reality.

One general observation I’ve noticed is that 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 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 (an you are not in a panic), you need to take control – and quickly. Most people are followers and you don’t want them following someone in a panic.

My question for discussion is this:

While there are certainly varying ‘levels’ of panic induced by the severity of a given emergency situation, 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 of a situation? Is it just part of the DNA? Is it from an upbringing of a coddled environment? Is it from watching too much TV or video games where characters are seemingly indestructible coupled with the shock of reality? Is it from a society filled with so many safety nets? Can people be taught not to panic? Etc..

What do you think?

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  1. I have noticed that in emergency situations such as Automobile accidents, people choking on food, snake bite, ect. I tend to see/experience the situation in slow motion and 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.

    On the other hand I believe you can talk yourself down from panic if you experience it.

    1. 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.

      Although this experience is often automatic, and not subject to one’s volition, this is not always the case. One can attain the ability to alter the speed at which they perceive, and increase, as a result, the speed of their ability to react.

      In my experience, this ability is associated with the stress of personal combat, where one must “flow” and not think. I assume this mental state requires a mind with “good wires,” which is associated with very fast reflexes.

      The consciousness of those around us is not equal. The intelligence of everyone may vary. The ability to perceive reality varies. Cognitive function varies. The emotional status and mental health varies. Education and experience varies. Confidence varies.

      In any group of people, which is stressed by life threatening events, they may be luck to have someone with the genetic ability to lead at this time arise and take control. But, usually, such a leader only appears if it is in keeping with the service their own values. And, they will save only those who can be saved.

      1. I agree 100%. I believe it is an inherited trait. After all everyone alive today is a product of survivors since time began.

    2. 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.

    3. Sort of like, yes, maybe a dumb comparison, but like in a game Call of Duty ( and I think others had it too) where you breach the wall or door and there are like 4-5 bad guys behind it, you’re going in like slow motion and boom boom boom, all the bad guys get taken out by you. Well, they most likely implemented this “slow motion” feature from the real life conditions some people experience in emergency situations.

    4. Both panic and courage are contagious.

      Courage is being scared shitless and saddling up anyway–Paraphrasing John Wayne

  2. 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.

  3. I was the sort of kid that worried a lot and was not thought of as the type to respond well in an emergency (my parents would have said this). However, after joining the military, and learning to take one day at a time and deal with each situation as it came, I developed the ability to remain calm in chaotic or dangerous situations. I served a career in the military and now law enforcement and have had to deal with numerous terrible situations, too many to list, and have been able to remain calm, level headed, able to respond appropriately (although critiquing and learning for the next emergency). Based on my life experiences I am of the belief that a person can be trained/taught to respond appropriately in emergencies. It helps to have good parents and mentors who realize we don’t go through life without difficulties/accidents/stressful situations and do all they can to prepare the person for them. Too many of our current generation are taught by our culture to depend on others when trouble comes and this pre-programs them to panic when they have to rely on themselves.

    1. I agree with you. Remember the BOY SCOUTS? How many men benefited from their boyhood training by this outfit? How many lives were saved as a result? Remember physical education? Training will prevent panic. Always be prepared, eh?

      1. Boy Scouts are now trained to “be in touch with their feelings”. Oh, and the scoutmaster’s schlong.

    2. Spot on Sgt.Bill. The helicoptering parenting syndrome, the entitlement era and the conditioning young people to react with their emotions rather than rational thought is to my mind corrupting and entire generation.

      In my country the statistics for suicide now exceed all other forms of death for those under 40 years old.

      I read something interesting just a day or so.
      Throughout history normal society was one of poverty and fear.
      Western countries normalcy bias has turned this reality on it’s head.

  4. Some good comments here. I had some muscle shivering fear before over death defying experiences, but never full blown panic. The more I practiced/experienced/understood those circumstances, the more I could manage my fear of them…

    Some people like some animals are pre-disposed to panic. Behaviors, brain chemistry, and thinking patterns can be inherited, but with some, environment can play an important role in overcoming it.

  5. 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.

  6. I must agree with the posters.
    Training will and can make all the difference.
    And when you add training to an already calm and collected mind, you now have a fearless leader.

  7. Albeit excessive in simplicity, I like this summary:
    Its not just “fight or flight”. It is “fight flight or freeze”.

    Most people freeze, and when they unfreeze, they follow.

    Early in my medical training, I would find it hard to think clearly during a code (patient crashing). With experience and training, it became much easier. I have also remained calm during a few life threatening episodes (kidnapping attempt while abroad, my baby choking, etc), but have found it much harder to keep that calm, cool, collected state of mind in scenarios that were personally highly charged on an emotional level. Therefore, I have to think that this is a fluid and dynamic skill. It can be genetic, it is affected by nurture, it is affected by traumatic events, and it is effected by training. The take-home is that anyone can learn how to stay calm under fire with practice.

  8. 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.

  9. I definitely think there are a great deal of factors here. Some of us are born with. Some comes from experience. Some comes from confidence born from training and experience. The more you read, study, train, and mentally prepare, the better off you will be.

    1. If a crisis erupts, I head for my safe space. The Pla-Doh, cookies, and videos of frolicking puppies usually do the job.

  10. I always thought I would be the one to freeze or panic. But several things have happened and I have been rather calm. I really believe it is my belief in God. I know I have to fully rely on him. Only with his help will I be able to overcome my situation. That is not to say I would not be a little scared or fearful. Keeping up with reading about survival tips and sharing knowledge, I think that will also help you when the SHTF.

  11. Great comments all around…

    There are a lot of factors that will apparently affect whether or not someone will panic – many of them mentioned here in your comments. Ultimately, one never knows until a real condition arises. To practice, to drill, to train, to 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 though, it does apparently come more natural for some than others (the ability to correctly assess and act).

    1. You’re spot on Ken. Having training, and better yet, realistic drills in emergency situations has made all the difference several times in my life already.

      If you haven’t already learned and practiced or at least thought about what to do in an emergency, you are not prepared at all when it actually comes.

      Even a simple “fire drill” sprung on your family will reveal areas in need of attention, and this kind of realistic training costs you nothing…well, your wife might get mad if you ruin dinner with a fire extinguisher…

  12. Knowing what to do and how to do it is part of the key. Training takes over and you react from your training. If you have been trained in first aid you know how to help an injured person and you do it. Still fear can paralyze the best of us. The first day of WWII Mc Arthurs HQ Did absolutely nothing due to shock. Too often the herd instinct takes over and people watch instead of acting like it is live TV. You have to act like you know what your doing and get people moving with specific assignments. Ask their names and then by name tell them what to do. Too often 20 men will watch one man stab someone. People need a leader so lead

    1. I beg to differ, Rockman. Now, most people whip out their smart phones and record video. If I was doing a Tony Robbins firewalk and some ass stopped for a selfie, I would jump off the coals right after pushing them down.

  13. Really excellent comments, folks! Well done, has restored my faith in a very small percentage of the populace. I’ve been scared “spitless” many many times, but have never ever “frozen” at all. Always knew how to respond(as opposed to reacting-which I believe is almost always fatal) as a result of excellent training and real life experience, both in the military and as an LEO in my former career.

  14. Humans, just like animals, have fight-or-flight reactions.

    Bears will fight, elephants will fight, rats will run away (if they feels the vibrations.)

    Mama bear’s reaction is usually to chase her cubs up a tree and defend them from the base.

    Watch the 20/20 episode titled “If Only I Had A Gun.” It shows how being armed for defense is useless without emergency response training.

    In a panic, the blood rushes to the heart, away from the extremities. That’s why our faces go white when we’re afraid, or some even piss in their pants and their hands go cold.

    To handle the emergency, the blood has to stay in the hands and face.

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