Understanding Panic during Emergency Situations



“Fight or flight” is a natural human reaction to the instinctual feeling of danger.  The amygdala, a structure within the brain, is responsible for signals to place our body on high alert and process action, without the necessity of thinking.  The goal is to escape danger.  Among groups of terrified people fleeing a concert or building, the crowd behaves similarly.  Rushing and pushing toward exit doors in the hope of survival, not looking back to a trampled or crushed person.

Lessons Learned

Researchers seeking to know more about the thought processes of individuals during high-stress situations tested their theories through virtual simulation. In one timed scenario with the condition of not bumping into other individuals, the participants were unaware that only one exit of four led to safety.

The results concluded that

  • Crowding occurred in areas connected to a decision, especially near doors.
  • Groups followed a designated leader (termed herding), even if the direction was wrong.
  • In crowded situations, participants failed to pay attention to exit signs and fire alarms upon entering large and small rooms.

The results also determined two types of people: a follower, who reacted and panicked, and a focused crisis leader.

How to Be Actively Prepared

Emergencies can happen anywhere, at any hour.  The idea of preparedness is having a plan, and knowing in advance how to utilize your resources.  One strategy is to always acknowledge the placement of “Exit” signs when in a public place.  And, in knowing your resource—it may simply be a vehicle as the means of escape, grabbing and accessing an emergency kit, or leaving a building immediately.  As a leader, you will need to remain calm, and “herd” your group to safety.

Consider the following resources in your emergency planning.

Emergency Supply Kits: In every car and home, create a bag with needed supplies.  Do not worry about accumulating items from a defined list; instead, consider selecting items that could ease your family from panic to calmness.  Begin with comfort by including water, blankets, winter hats, gloves, and socks, possibly a change of clothes, batteries and small flashlights, water and snacks.  To construct a kit, consider assembling single-use items, such as packets of alcohol wipes, antibiotic ointment, gauze, and Band-aids.   As you experience new emergencies, add additional supplies to your kit.

Tip:  Talk about emergencies with your family to ensure everyone knows how to respond, what to do first, and the location of essential resources.

Develop a Communication Plan:  Problems arise when typical expectations change.  Sometimes, a solution requires proactivity, for example, in the case of a power outage, a house fire, being stranded on the roadside, a medical situation, or evacuating a building.  Survival during an emergency situation should not depend solely on individual imitative. The plan sometimes includes many individuals, family, neighbors, and a network of others.

  • Make sure conversations begin with the first response, such as calling the electric company to report the outage, or leaving the house immediately in a fire.
  • Emergency phone numbers need to be accessible in one file and clearly labeled.
  • Have the ability to access community alerts and warning systems, which may include information about your local weather or town and state.

Evacuation Plan: Fires take less than 30 seconds to develop from a small flame into a major fire.  In the plan for preparation, discuss measures to create an escape plan, including young children, elders, and family pets.  Young children will enjoy participating in exercises, such as who can identify two ways to exit each room in the house.  It is the perfect time to teach practical advice, for example, to touch doors only with an open palm to test for a heightened temperature, and to open them slowly.

Additionally, check all windows for broken seals, test and replace batteries of smoke alarms regularly, and teach young children not to hide from firefighters.

Do Not Become a Statistic!

According to one survey, 60% of Americans claim they have not practiced a drill or exercise at their workplace, school, or home in the past 12 months.  Preparing families, especially children, to think througha new situation may NOT be an action that will resolve a crisis in time.  In hearing the word “emergency,” there is an immediate reaction to panic. Starting with individuals, expanding to families, and spreading the word to communities, we can set our minds on becoming focused crisis leaders!


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