Why so many people panic in a crisis

Some time ago I collected a few links about why some people survive a disaster and others don’t. Assuming the event is survivable (and sometimes it’s not), it seems to have a lot to do with attitude.

You might remember the horrific 1994 sinking of a ferry on the Baltic Sea. “Six hours into the journey,” notes this article, “pushing through a force nine gale, the bow door broke open and the ferry started taking on water. Within an hour it had sunk, taking with it 852 of its passengers and crew.”

Even survival experts were astonished at the high death toll; it appeared many people drowned because they did nothing to save themselves. The official report at the time (no longer available online) concluded, “A number of people … seem to have been incapable of rational thought or behaviour because of their fear. Others appeared petrified and could not be forced to move. Some panicking, apathetic and shocked people were beyond reach and did not react when other passengers tried to guide them, not even when they used force or shouted at them.”

Military survival instructor John Leach has researched behavior in extreme environments and has studied the actions of survivors and victims from dozens of disasters around the world, including one in which he was personally involved. He learned that in life-threatening events, “around 75% of people are so bewildered by the situation that they are unable to think clearly or plot their escape. They become mentally paralyzed. Just 15% of people on average manage to remain calm and rational enough to make decisions that could save their lives. The remaining 10% are plain dangerous: They freak out and hinder the survival chances of everyone else.”

Why? Why do some people remain calm and rational and others become paralyzed? Or as Mr. Leach puts it, “Why do so many people die when they need not, when they have the physical means to save themselves? Why do so many give up, or fail to adjust to the unfolding crisis? In most disaster scenarios … you don’t need special skills to survive. You just need to know what you should do.”

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A key to this inexplicable behavior lies in another article harvested from The Organic Prepper entitled “The One Simple Secret to Surviving Any Disaster.” When disaster strikes,” notes the post, “will you be ready? Will you be organized, calm, and ready to adapt to whatever the situation brings? Sometimes we have some warning, and sometimes things happen out of the blue. There is one simple secret that will allow you to sail through nearly any crisis. It doesn’t cost a lot of money, or take up an entire roomful of storage space. It’s your ability to accept the scenario.” [Emphasis added.]

Denial, it appears, is more than a river in Egypt. It’s the mental condition that frequently dooms anyone involved in a disastrous situation. People who think, “This can’t be real. This is what happens to other people. It’s not happening to me,” are often the ones who don’t make it, because their denial paralyzes them.

This is confirmed by social psychologist Jerome Chertkoff. “Being in a situation where your life is in danger increases your emotional arousal, and high arousal causes people to limit the number of alternatives they consider,” he writes. “That can be bad when trying to determine a course of action, since you may never consider the option most likely to result in escaping safely.”

In emergencies, it seems, people often fail to do what (under normal circumstances) would be obvious. Therefore survival experts agree the only reliable way to shortcut this kind of impaired thinking is to mentally prepare for an emergency in advance. This practice makes actions automatic, without the need for detailed thinking.

Now let’s make a bit of a mental leap. Not all disasters happen abruptly or without warning. Some disasters unfold with warning bells or red flags occurring anywhere from days to years ahead of time. We’re seeing this take place in real time all across the globe with energy shortages, economic uncertainty and food availability. Those who deny (there’s that word again!) these warnings are often the ones who are impacted the most when the disaster hits.

Today, most people have the attitude that someone will take care of them. They trust authority and have lost the ability to think for themselves. This propensity starts young, when schoolchildren are taught to accept without question whatever is the current government line, rather than learn independent-thinking skills. As adults, we specialize in denial unless told otherwise.

Very simply, unprepared people panic and/or freeze. Preparedness encompasses both the mental and the physical ability to accept and act on a situation. “All you have to do is ask yourself one … question,” says John Leach. “If something happens, what is my first response? Once you can answer that, everything else will fall into place. It’s that simple.”

As a nation, how many flashing red lights do we need before we put on the brakes? How many screaming sirens, how many warning bells do we have to hear, how many wrecks scattered on the roadside do we have to pass before we realize there’s a cliff ahead and we cannot continue our trajectory?

Places as widespread as Europe and Sri Lanka and Venezuela have discovered (or are discovering) that when the chips are down, no one is coming to save them. It’s up to them to do what they can to handle the reality of what governmental policies are doing to people on the ground.

As individuals, there is little we can do to stop these national and international trajectories. Instead, we must act for ourselves. It’s time for people to accept the scenario and ask themselves, “If something happens, what is my first response?”

Knowing is better than not knowing. The time for denial is over. Metaphorically speaking, there’s a strong wind blowing, there’s no one at the helm, and we’re taking on water. Now what are you going to do about it?

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This article was originally published by the WND News Center.

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