Dispatches from the Cockpit 003: On Panic

The outbreak of a potentially life-threatening epidemic will trigger panic in all of us. The state of panic is one of the most difficult to bear, if one can bear it at all. Panic is an extreme reaction to the feeling of being threatened by one’s life. The feeling of panic can save lives if it mobilizes all faculties to do what is necessary to escape from the threat. The feeling of panic can also immobilize all mental functions and lead to total paralysis. The first and biggest threat in panic is that it has the tendency to sever all connections with other parts of oneself which are responsible for realistic thinking and realistic judgement. The first reaction to panic is usually that one is throwing one’s brain out and starts running, physically and emotionally. Actually, one starts running without orientation and thus all over the place and finally into disaster. In one of my previous lives – I had many – I was a mountain guide and from time to time a client, man or woman, was assaulted by a panic attack and could not move any more. It was not psychoanalysis which I offered in situations like that but a very few simple instructions, based on observation and experience. My first instruction was: “You are not breathing any more. Start breathing. Breath in an out till breathing feels normal again.” My second instruction was: “Stop looking at yourself. Open your eyes and look at me.” My third instruction was: “When you can see me clearly in front of you, start looking around you.” My fourth instruction was: “Tell me what you see.” Interestingly, when I had got to instruction four, my client had recovered enough, could communicate again with me and I could propose a realistic way to move out of paralysis and into realistic action. This method never failed me, but I did not have that many clients to turn it into a general rule or recommendation. What I want to illustrate here is simple, it is the capacity for realistic orientation and assessment which is the first casualty in a panic attack. Fear eats brain and gets rid of it. In all instances during my activity as panic manager, starting to breathe, recovering the sense for the real existing situation and starting again realistic orientation was possible and successful, but this did not mean the surrounding reality was comforting. It needs an experienced and cool-headed mountaineer, to guide a “recovered” client across the real icy small ridge with steep drops on both sides. Getting someone out of a panic does not mean one can offer a calming and harmless external reality. But one has achieved something most important: The client has recovered important brain faculties and with that as ally one has a good chance to find a solution. Learning to differentiate between a perception governed by and trapped in panic and a perception anxiously, but realistically assessing the circumstance needs to be learnt and it can be. I learnt it during my training in Calanish and developed it during my work in different regions as Chief Druid. I am still learning and hope to improve further. Yes, I have said nothing about being ambushed by and trapped in a panic when one is totally alone, without any cool-headed mountain guide next to one. I will talk about that in another dispatch and I think, I can talk about it with authority: During a visit to one of the most impressive stone circles – looking for more wisdom – I was, totally unprepared and without any warning, ambushed in the middle of the night by a bunch of the darkest riders imaginable. I will tell you at another time how I managed to regain orientation and find my way home again. The real work started after that.