Anxiety and panic are caused by a sense of being overwhelmed by conditions beyond our control. People who are trained or experienced at handling crisis situations, or at least knowledgeable about what to do to mitigate the risks, are less likely to slip into a mental state of shock when things go wrong. Here are some steps you can take to help ward off the sense of doom and gloom in a crisis.
Take A Deep Breath
Unless you’re in immediate danger (surrounded by a raging fire — a grizzly has you in his lips — drowning), the first step is to sit down and take a deep breath. I’m not kidding. The most important thing you can do when panic starts to raise its ugly head is take a seat on the nearest log and try to relax your thoughts. The most dangerous urge is to run down the trail looking for salvation. That wastes energy (both water and food), might result in an injury, and will probably take you farther away from safety. So take a seat, inhale long and slow, then exhale the same way until your heart rate returns to normal. While you’re sitting there, take the next step.
Assess The Situation
Start with an analysis of immediate threats to your life. If you’re lost, night is coming on and you’re hungry, that is not necessarily an immediate threat to your life. It might be frightening and miserable, but it probably won’t kill you unless you lose your mind and so some foolish things. On the other hand, if a cold rain is falling, the wind is howling, you’re exhausted, and you are poorly equipped, that can kill you as surely as a grizzly bear (although more slowly). It’s imperative to understand which conditions are truly dangerous and which ones are merely a nuisance that you will easily survive.
Now get busy. This step of taking action will do more than just get a variety of jobs done — it will also help calm your nerves as you feel like you’re taking control of the situation.
Make a mental list of the greatest needs and put them in order of priority. Then get up and start to knock off the biggest challenge first. Do one thing at time and don’t get distracted unless it’s to resolve an emergency. For example, find or build a shelter, then work on the fire, then get your signal system operating, then find water to drink, etc. until you reach the bottom of your priority list.
Don’t worry if you can’t get everything done as quickly as you want. By following this method, at least you know that you are taking care of the most important needs first, and that alone will help calm you. As you accomplish each task and your living conditions improve, anxiety will begin to diminish and your confidence will grow.
A powerful action to help calm the situation is to organize a secure camp. With a shelter over your head, everything feels more civilized and safer. Indeed, you will be safer from the most threatening aspect of the outdoors — the weather. With protection from the wind, cold and wet, your spirits will be higher, and you will recognize that you have accomplished a very important survival task. This, in turn, will elevate your confidence and turn away panic.
The warm glow of a fire works miracles to calm your mind and heart. Even aside from all the primary reasons for having a fire (purifying water, cooking food, drying your clothes, staying warm), the companionship alone is a powerful way to dispel anxiety. And if you arrange the fire to serve as a signaling device, you’ll feel good, knowing that you are assisting your own rescue.
Mental and physical exhaustion bring anxiety, depression and panic. Those conditions lead to poor judgment and bad decisions, which in turn increase risk. Even a few hours of sleep will restore the psychological strength you need to carry on.
When you get some food in your stomach, the situation seems like it’s not so bad. It isn’t so much about the calories (although they are important) as it is about the emotional comfort that comes from eating. It’s like your stomach says to your brain, “Hey, we’re not going to die after all.”
Whether you’re talking to yourself or with other survivors, exercise your sense of humor and find something to laugh about. Humor reduces stress through a number of physiological and hormonal mechanisms. In times of crisis, dark humor is often what saves the day. When I was a young paratrooper, we used to sing “Blood on the Risers” when the tension got high in the airplane we were about the jump out of. It gave us something to chuckle about, along with a sense of heroism in the dangerous situation we were facing.
Survival is 90-percent mental. If you keep your brains intact and your emotions under control, you will probably come out of the event with great stories to tell.