PrepperPsych 101: Fight, Flight, Freeze – People in a Panic

In some ways humans are unique among living things; but when we get scared enough those special things bolt off into a hole somewhere and we’re left with responses common to many animals.  This is what physiologists call the sympathetic response, otherwise known as plain old panic.

How can you tell when someone else has hit the panic button? (Thanks John* for the image)

We all have a picture in our minds of what panic looks like, mostly featuring people fleeing with wide eyes.  Like many stereotypes, it’s got truth it it … but not all the truth.  As preppers, we should be less susceptible to panic ourselves — knowing you have options is helpful that way — but we need to be able to recognize it in others even when it doesn’t fit the stereotype.  We also need to know what that means about the psychological place the people are in, since we may have to deal with them.

First off, just from the straight physiology of it, the stereotype has the wide-eyed thing right.  Dilated pupils, rapid heart beat, and increased sweating are all hard-wired into the response.  Those are cues you can look for even if the behavior doesn’t fit the mold you’re expecting. Sometimes the ‘fleeing’ thing is there too; and when it is it won’t take no for an answer.  One of the key things they teach in dive training is how to avoid panic, because it makes divers bolt for the surface (in spite of little facts like ‘that would kill you right now’).

They also teach you to expect a panicked diver to do their best to tear you up if you attempt to restrain them.  Some people come to the ‘fight’ part of the panic response because they can’t flee.  Other people just skip the Christmas rush and start right in with unreasoned violence.  That’s one reason for this post; to raise awareness of the fact that some people will respond to their panic by lashing out at whatever or whoever is within reach.  I’m sure they’d prefer to get at the source of their troubles, but really, whoever’s close will do.  On a related note, people who aren’t actually panicked but are quite stressed tend to have quite the hair trigger as well.

A reasonable man wouldn’t leap bodily onto a wall of swords. A panicked man might.

The last of the responses is the least well recognized.  Why did the pedestrian just stand there staring at the out of control car?  Why did the person confronted by the individual with the gun not just do what the gun-wielder demanded?  People talk about these things as if the people acting like lumps of lead were just being dense.  More likely, they were panicked.  The ‘freeze’ strategy works pretty well when you’re being hunted, as it makes you harder to spot.  It makes less sense when you’re in a car stalled on railroad tracks; but the reaction’s still there, and one doesn’t get to choose when it pops up.

They call it a ‘deer in the headlights’ look for a reason. In a panic, they’ll just stand and stare. So will people, at times. Thanks Fabrice** for the image.

So what can you do once you recognize someone in a panic?  Well, you could reason with them.  You could also sing them a lullaby or demand they ‘just calm down’.  You could, but it would do about as much good as trying to bail out the ocean with a bucket.  They can’t be reasonable until they’re out of the panic.  More effective is to give them the space and lack of immediate pressure that may let the panic fade off.   

Whatever you do, don’t rely on them.  Normally peaceful people may attempt murder.  Reactions can change in an instant, for no apparent reason; so you can’t trust the ‘freeze’ response to stay frozen, either.  Is it true that people in a panic have super-human strength?  No … but it IS true that unpanicked people have mental blocks that prevent them from using all of their strength, and panicked people don’t.  In other words, they can be a lot stronger than you’d expect.

There’s one last quirk of the sympathetic reaction worth a mention here:  focused attention.  On one side, people in a high stress state have excellent, even laser-like, focus on the thing they think is the threat.  On the flip side, they’ve no attention left for much else.  They can be *surprisingly* oblivious to other aspects of their world. (Me, I’m about avoiding needless confrontation, so I’d be looking for a way to use that to avoid the notice of someone I didn’t think was within the reach of reasonable behavior anyway.)  They may also be incredibly stubborn, temporarily lacking the creativity to think of any new approach but willing to beat themselves bloody (figuratively or literally) by running full strength against the same obstacle time and again.

The two-sentence summary?  Know what that wide-eyed stare from the sweaty face means whether it’s fleeing, charging, or just standing and staring.  Don’t expect the person behind those eyes to be fully ‘at home’ and listening to reason … and don’t be between them and the door.

*By John (Flickr: Panic button) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

**By Fabrice Florin (https://www.flickr.com/photos/fabola/874357185) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons




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