When we hear the word “panic,” most of us imagine someone running around and screaming. But panic takes many forms. It can be thought of simply as any behavior that occurs when the level of stress or emotion is high enough to prevent conscious thought and deliberate decision-making.
For example, most people panic when they fall or when they’re knocked down. The panic may be brief and not very intense, such as when you slip on ice and scramble to get back up. But it can also be incredibly powerful. In the summer of 2000, a 35-year-old climber in Alberta grabbed a loose hold while soloing the southwest face of Mount Colin and fell more than 200 feet, hitting solid rock at the bottom. He died from extensive trauma, but even in his panicked state he was still trying to get back up.
In emergencies, such a powerful natural response can seem nearly impossible to suppress. On June 26, 1996, a 44-year-old man fell from a raft into the upper Hudson River near North Creek, New York. Despite being warned against doing so, he quickly tried to stand up. His foot was immediately caught between two rocks. Although the water was fairly shallow, the current pushed his upper body down and held him under. It stripped off his life vest, and he drowned. Foot entrapment is a common cause of death on rivers, because when boaters fall into the water, their momentary panic overrides the ability to think logically, and they forget what they’ve been told: Don’t stand up.
It may seem like panic is all about the mind, but panic is really about the body—or, more precisely, how you’re reacting to what the body is experiencing.
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Illustration by Harry Campbell