The P-Word

Panic has little place in the modern world, and for a crime fighter it can be a killer; action is our mantra, and preparation is our antidote.

Dave Smith Headshot

Illustration by Sequoia Blankenship.Illustration by Sequoia Blankenship.Panic is one of those nasty little things that's hard to explain but you know when you see it. While watching coverage of the bombing at the Boston Marathon, I noticed the remarkable difference between those who leapt into action and those who simply collapsed, ran away, or walked one direction then another then another, meandering. The first were oriented toward creating order out of chaos, saving the injured, and protecting everyone else. The second were presenting classic symptoms of our ancient enemy, panic.

I have no doubt panic used to be pretty effective. Turning and running wildly or freezing in the middle of a forest might have been the last bit of hope for our ancient ancestors suddenly walking onto the menu list of a saber-tooth tiger. The trouble is, in our modern era we can't outrun a 9mm or disappear by freezing into the urban jungle. Panic has little place in the modern world, and for a crime fighter it can be a killer; action is our mantra, and preparation is our antidote.

At some point in our lives almost all of us have felt that terrible tickle of fear, indecision, and loneliness that comes with panic; whether we were in a real threat or not, we can all remember that day, that moment. Yet today, think how many intense, dangerous situations you have faced and never felt that helplessness, that indecision, that horror. Why don't more police officers, firefighters, and other first responders panic? In fact, how many of you think back with a smile about what a great adventure that exciting terrifying electrifying moment was? Why do some panic, others not?

First, what exactly is panic? Panic is a confluence of three separate mental states: I am alone, I am trapped, and I can't handle this. "Wait," you say. "I see people in crowds panicking and the exits are just a few feet away."

Exactly. Panic is a perception, not a reality. People in crowds are alone in the mind; they have nowhere to go because they don't know where to go, and they can't handle it because they have never been trained. This is what makes first responders generally "panic resistant." If we can just take one of the legs off the three-legged stool that comprises panic we can stop it.

Let's take the first leg: I am alone. Researchers say those who believe in a loving God are panic resistant because they never have a sense of being alone. Military units often fight to the end with fixed bayonet and no signs of panic since they are bound together, a single family, each caring for the other, never alone.

Next, I am trapped. I have watched videos of officers dying behind cover, not moving, not evading, not assaulting, compared to those with military training who maneuver, advance, retreat, all in the midst of the same horror. The only difference is training, that magic antidote for panic.

Cover is not a place to hide, but a tool to use to allow you time, distance, tactical advantage, and protection. You need to practice this until it becomes a habit. Using a 2-by-4 bolted on a pole at 25 yards and calling it cover doesn't really cut it. Firing ranges with cars, poles, mailboxes, and fire hydrants allow your mind to build a spontaneous ability to take and use cover without waiting for conscious thought. In other words, you develop a habit.

Finally, I can't handle this, is absolutely the result of a "failure to train." The unconscious mind is made strong, flexible, and panic resistant through training. Nicolas Talib, the writer philosopher, has written that the wind blows out the candle but fans a flame. Training turns your mind into a flame fanned by the winds of stress and crisis. That is why so often your most exciting adventures are events that would cause panic in the untrained, the unprepared.

Reflect on these things and then make sure you mentally train yourself to deal with those things you personally find terrifying, and see yourself resolve it. The Air Force calls this "Hugging the Monster." So hug your monsters and know you make yourself more and more resistant to panic. Have the wind fan your flame.

Dave Smith is an internationally recognized law enforcement trainer and is the creator of "JD Buck Savage." You can follow Buck on Twitter at @thebucksavage.

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Dave Smith Headshot
Officer (Ret.)
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