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Understanding the Nature of Panic

The other night, I woke up about three o’clock in the morning in what I would consider a state of “panic.” I was sweating profusely, my breathing my shallow and fast, my heart was racing, I was disoriented.  As I got control of myself, I realized I’d been having a typical “cop dream.” This one involved my family and their safety and my inability (in my dream) to protect them, so I got up and started checking the kids and the house, making sure my dream wasn’t real. 

The two kids who live at home were sound asleep, the doors were locked tight, and my German shepherd-mix was sleeping in his customary spot in our entryway, where he has access to the front and back doors as well as to the stairs that lead to our bedrooms.  That he merely opened his eyes and gave me a curious look was a pretty good indication that all was well.  I went back to bed but of course I couldn’t sleep, so I started pondering the nature of panic. 

My husband, Dave Smith and I, have been studying and teaching the nature of panic for years; but we really started to study it in-depth when author Ben Sherwood wrote “The Survivor’s Club.”  Sherwood calls panic the “Archenemy of Survival.”    

The word “panic” is derived from the Greek god Pan, who is said to have ruled the woods and the fields, stirring up mysterious sounds causing “contagious and groundless fear in herds or crowds or in people in lonely spots.”  It’s also described in the dictionary as “fright, terror, dread, alarm, horror.”  In our officer survival classes, we call it “Condition Black.”  Every young cop has a moment or two (or more) in the academy where they panic during scenario training, on the range, or even during an exam.  Panic is a normal human response to many different stimuli, but once we understand it, we’re better able to control it.

First of all, there is a great deal of mythology concerning panic.  We often think of “panic” as people running around, screaming, totally out of control. Certainly this happens, but not as often as you think.  Research tells us that during horrible events such as the Japanese earthquake of 1995 or the terror attacks of 9-11-01 most people rarely lost control; rather, they froze and waited to be told what to do.  Cops see this on a smaller scale almost every day.  How many times have you pulled up on a multiple-vehicle crash scene or responded to a “fight in progress” at the local watering hole and started issuing some strong verbal commands.  Most people will listen and do what you say.  Their brain is waiting to be snapped out of that frozen state, and that’s what you, the authority figure, provide. 

Lee Clarke, a sociologist atRutgersUniversity, says there’s a widespread misconception that in panic-inducing situations like fires and aviation accidents, humans become animalistic.  Commercial plane crashes are a perfect example of this.  Most of the time, when a plane goes down and there are survivors, we hear stories of heroism and altruism, people tend to bind together in the aftermath and help each other.  Even the narcissistic individuals who selfishly climb over seats or other people to get out of a burning plane aren’t “panicking” in the true sense.  They are responding rationally to a life threatening crisis; they’re just more self-centered than most.   

Panic is three simultaneous states of mind or beliefs about yourself or the situation.  In his signature training class “The Winning Mind©” Dave Smith calls this “The Three Legged Stool of Panic.”  Those “legs” of a panicked mindset are “I’m All Alone,” “I Have Nowhere to Go,” and “I Can’t Handle This.”  If we can take away any one of those legs, panic does not occur.  So how does this apply to you?

We’ve all seen tragic dashcam videos where police officers panic.  Sometimes they scream, sometimes they run, sometimes they fail to take cover or return fire.  Sometimes they shoot wildly, they yell unintelligibly on the radio, or they mill about in the immediate aftermath of a crisis.  Why does this happen?  In a critical incident, the frontal lobe of your brain is trying to find a match for what it’s experiencing.  If you have no experience of being shot at, your brain just keeps looping around, searching for a solution.  Very often, the result is inaction or immobility; IE:  panic.

So how do we control this type of panic?  The obvious answer is “training.”  Not just training in the traditional sense…on the range, on the mat, on a simulator...but the training of your brain.  Visualize various situations, expect the unthinkable to occur, and process in advance how you’ll respond.  For example, imagine yourself making a traffic stop.  As you approach the vehicle, the passenger begins to fire at you.  See yourself moving and reacting, drawing your weapon, taking cover, returning fire, reloading and so on.  Make the situation realistic, and take yourself all the way through to a successful conclusion.

Think about those three legs of panic.  Only you can truly affect each of those in a crisis.  In your visualization, you have somewhere to go; you find cover.  You know you’re in good shape and you’re proficient with your firearm, so you’re confident that you can move, shoot and win the gunfight.  And finally, as one Italian researcher says, people who have faith in a loving God were found to be resistant to panic because knew they were never alone.  This isn’t religion, its science. 

To prevent panic we must understand it.  Remember, taking away any of the three legs is key.  Physically practice your skills, mentally rehearse for critical incidents, and finally, reflect on your belief systems, including what you believe about yourself and your ability to win any confrontation. Keep training, and stay safe!


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About The Author:

Sgt. Betsy Brantner Smith is a 29-year veteran of a large suburban Chicago police department. She retired in 2009 as a patrol supervisor, and has held positions in patrol, investigations, narcotics, juvenile, crime prevention and field training. As a sergeant, she supervised her department's K-9 Unit, served as a field training sergeant, recruitment team sergeant, bike patrol coordinator, the Crowd Control Bike Team supervisor, and supervisor of the Community Education/Crime Prevention Unit.

As a patrol sergeant, Betsy served on the Elderly Services Team, the Crisis Intervention Team, and was a supervisory member of the Honor Guard Unit. From 1999 - 2003 Betsy hosted various programs for the Law Enforcement Television Network and served as a content expert.

A graduate of the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety's School of Staff and Command, Betsy writes for numerous law enforcement and government publications including and is a regular columnist for many police websites and print magazines. A content expert and instructor for the Calibre Press "Street Survival" seminar from 2003 until 2013, Betsy also serves as an on-air commentator and advisor for the Police One Academy and was a featured character in the Biography Channel's "Female Forces" reality show. Betsy has been a law enforcement trainer for over 20 years and is a popular keynote speaker at conferences throughout the United States, Canada and beyond.

Betsy is the creator and lead instructor of “The Winning Mind for Women,” the original career and officer survival training for females in the police profession. She also co-owns Dave Smith & Associates and together, Betsy and Dave teach courses through "Winning Mind Seminars," an Arizona based training and consulting company. She can be reached through her website at