How to deal with panic
When we are in the midst of panicking, we often feel helpless. LIke we are no longer in control of our situation. It feels like there is nothing we can do but be brave and push through.
Being brave doesn’t mean we are not afraid, it means that we are afraid and do it anyway. But the better we understand the situation, the better that we can manage it, and the less effort it takes to push through.
Here’s my basic argument:
Panic doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with us. It means that our organism is operating exactly as designed
We are designed for a world where death is common but exist in a world where it is rare
Panic happens when our protective and predictive mechanisms detach from our actual reality and begin to free run based on what we imagine.
Our rationality makes panic worse by assuming a definitive source of danger that needs to be identified instead of being alert for possible danger that may or may not exist.
To short circuit this runaway cycle we feed it a range of specific scenarios and specific next steps to move our protective mechanism from the realm of imagination back to actual reality: What is the worst thing that could happen, what is the most likely bad thing that could happen, what is the best thing that could happen, what is the most likely good thing that could happen, and what is the overall most likely thing that could happen
Nothing is wrong with us
Fundamentally there is nothing wrong with panic in and of itself. It just means we are working correctly as designed.
Panic is an extreme form of fear. Fear is a mechanism to protect us from danger. Our cavemen ancestors who were not cautious enough, who were not fearful enough, aren’t our ancestors. They didn’t survive.
Fear is not necessarily a sign of danger, it is a sign that there may be danger. Fear is a sign to be alert for a reason to potentially run, not a definitive sign that we should start running.
Fear escalates to panic in order to amplify the danger signal. Panic is fear giving us a last ditch red alert to spur us into action right before the tigers jaws are about to close on our head.
Normally panic happens when there is a specific danger. In our caveman days, there was much more upside than downside to panic since the danger we were avoiding was usually death: a maximal negative outcome that warranted a maximal response to avoid at all costs.
In other words, when the tiger has started to run towards you it’s time to maximize your response and start panicking. And even if you are not sure if that is a tiger or just the wind rustling the leaves, best start running just in case.
The problem is that, similar to some of our other built in survival mechanisms (eg our desire for sugar/carbs making us fat), the unlikelihood of actual physical danger means that our designed response is no longer appropriate. We are still acting as if the death is a likely occurrence.
Rationality is our default
All animals feel fear that can escalate to panic. That fear motivates them to use whatever tools they have at hand to deal with the threat: attack, run away, hide, etc.
Our intelligence gives us additional options.
Our rationality is a uniquely human problem solving tool. It is designed to come up with a series of steps to achieve a particular outcome. It allows us to move away from purely reactive steps that mitigate an immediate issue to planful steps that bring to fruition a future outcome.
However, in order to be effective, rationality requires that there is a specific future outcome we are aiming for. A specific problem to solve.
When we are panicking it is usually because there is an unknown factor. And because we are using rationality, we are looking for a problem to solve. So that unknown automatically becomes a problem.
But it is unknown, there is no obvious tiger, we can’t identify the danger.So we start coming up with possibilities for what the danger is..
We have now left reality and entered the realm of the imaginary.
We think we are afraid because of something dangerous.. But since there is no obvious external danger we end up imagining one. After all we are feeling fearful, so there MUST be a reason for it right?
We are not modeling what could be wrong, the answer could be “nothing”. We are looking for what IS wrong.
What is worse is that when we come up with a potential reason for our fear response, that actually increases our anxiety since we don’t actually know. We aren’t sure that is actually the problem.
What if we’re wrong? It is still unknown which makes us imagine a worse scenario that matches our increased fear which only increases our fear even more and we soon work ourselves into a full-fledged panic.
Our fear becomes our reality instead of our fear being a result of something happening in reality. We start from a rustle in the bush and imagine ourselves into a tiger rushing at us.
To solve this we just bring back actual reality.
Range of possibilities instead of definitive answers
But how to do that? By definition we are talking about something unknown. We don’t really know what will happen.
But while it is true that we cannot be certain as to what will happen, we can have a pretty good idea of the different things that could possibly happen and how likely each is.
Instead of free-running on no data we come up with a range of specific scenarios that could happen. For each we can then use our rationality to come up with specific next steps. Our fear may not reduce but it won’t grow without bound either.
In order to respect our fear we need to come up with some negative scenarios and in order to get motivated to move we need to come up with some positive scenarios. That range then helps us to determine what is the actual likely scenario. We move our mental model from pure imagination to being informed by actual reality.
Here’s what we do. We start with the worst case, work our way to the best case, and arrive at the most likely case now that we set the range:
What is the very worst thing that could possibly happen? What is the absolute worst thing that you can imagine happening in your current situation. Everything going wrong. Bad luck and bad decisions. And what would you do in that situation? Really push and be up front as to what you would actually do, no matter how terrible or useless it may be.
What is the most likely bad thing that could happen? Now that you have gotten the truly worst case scenario out of the way, what is the most likely negative outcome? You have already thought of the worst thing so you can’t say that. Doing that one first forces you to take it off the table when you think about what is actually the most realistic bad thing that could happen. What would you do?
What is the very best thing that could possibly happen? Next, go the other extreme. Everything goes exactly right. Your truly ideal, dream scenario has come to pass. What would you do now? It’s kind of an interesting exercise to go through what is next once you’ve achieved this dream scenario because it really helps you to think through if that actually is your dream scenario.
What is the most likely good thing that could happen? Similar to the bad case, you have taken your dream result out of the equation so what’s left? What would be the most likely good thing which is probably not your ideal but still not bad. Force yourself to think about something that is both good and likely, despite your feelings of doubt that it will happen. What would you do if this happened?
Finally, what is the most likely thing that will probably happen At this point you’ve now defined the range of scenarios. The absolute worst and absolute best as well as reference scenarios in between. Since you’ve taken all those off the table you are now forced to face what is actually the most likely scenario, good or bad. And this most likely scenario is what your rational mind can now focus on dealing with.
Let’s go through a specific example
Speaking in front of customers at a conference. We have been tagged by our boss to give one of the keynote speeches at an annual conference that our company sponsors. We’ve done some speaking in front of audiences before but never one this large or as important
Absolute worst thing that could happen. Bomb the presentation, start crying on stage, get fired What would I do? hit a bar with a good friend, get really lit, start pulling resume together, make plans to go visit another friend in Chicago
Most likely bad thing that could happen Speak very nervously and hesitantly, fumble some of the slides, never get asked to speak again by my boss What would I do? Get dinner with good friends, book a vacation, go bowling
Absolute best thing that could happen Nail the presentation, company gets some new customers as a result, people come up to me afterwards saying how great my talk was, I get promoted What would I do? Hit a bar with a good friend, buy a round of drinks for everyone, call my parents, post on facebook so all my friends give me congrats
Most likely good thing that could happen Competently give the presentation with no mistakes, handle all questions, get a “great job” from your boss What would I do? Binge watch game of thrones, come up with some ideas for other presentations, buy a cupcake
Most likely thing that could happen Start off the presentation a little nervously, get into a flow and end it with no mistakes, get some pointers on how to do things better from your boss What would I do? make plans for the weekend, sign up for public speaking course
The point is not to have a perfect plan for every scenario but just some kind of next step so that we’re not spinning. The next step is not necessarily something that is going to fix the situation, it may just be a way to lick our wounds.
The point is just to have a specific thing we will do if that scenario comes to pass. The specificity gives our minds something to work on.
Fundamentally we think we use rationality to make decisions but we are actually driven by feeling and use rationality as a tool in its service. When we panic, those systems begin an out of control feedback cycle. Bring reality back in a way that respects our feelings dampens that cycle so we can make effective decisions again.