Thursday, October 04, 2007

Don´t Panic!

Panic. It is one of these archaic instincts which used to be useful survival tools, but which have - to modern man - become entirely useless, not to say counterproductive, or even outright life-threatening.

Take the adrenaline rush (a close relative to panic), for example. It raises the heart rate and enables us to grow beyond our normal capacities, for instance enabling us to run faster. That feature, without doubt, used to be an essential survival tool for ancient man when running for from a stronger adversary (mammoths, tigers, other men).

Nowadays, aside from competitive sports (or actual run-for-your-life situations), stress-induced adrenaline rushes only serve to raise our blood pressure (a life-shortening feature), without us being able to actually take advantage from the strength or speed-enhancing effect, because, although that might be our primal instinct and ultimative urge at that point, usually we don´t simply run in adrenaline raising situations (job interviews, exams, stress with customers/spouses/bosses, turbulences in aircrafts, etc.).

Run for your life!

And now, panic. It switches off our rational thinking capacities and causes us to freeze. Which, again, might have been useful when being confronted with said stronger adversaries in a situation where running was not an option ... and with a bit of luck, the stronger adversary would not notice, or ignore the frozen victim. (Even if chances for the latter were probably rather slim, but the brain-numbing effects of panicking perhaps made whatever was to follow a little easier to suffer.)

All in all, however, panic causes an inability to go about with the required ratio and disables us from seeing clearly, so chances are we behave in an way (if we behave at all) which, in all likelihood, makes things even worse.

Here´s an example. Many years ago, we were hiking in a cirque full of boulders, when all of a sudden, we heard a thundering noise. It didn´t take us long to discover that the noise was caused by boulders falling. Because we were surrounded by mountain walls, due to the echoe effects we couldn´t quite locate where the rocks were coming down. In any case, it sounded like they were coming down all around us. And it sounded as if they were coming down increasingly closer to us.

So my instincts told me to do the unsensible thing, and my body followed suite. My brain totally blacked out, and I started running. Not a very good idea in the middle of a field of boulders in the first place. My sweetheart was behind me, and in the middle of my panic-stricken race across the rocks, I turned round to check if he was still there and alive (and to see if the falling rocks were catching up with us). Without stopping. Not a good idea either.

Of course, I stumbled and fell full length on the rocky underground, scratching the wrist of my left hand. The scratch was not deep, but it bled like hell, causing my sweetheart to panic in turn, because to him it looked like I´t slit my wrists. It looked a lot more dramatic than it was, and the actual problem was that - which I didn´t know at the time - I had broken the metacarpal bone of the little finger on my right hand.

Suddenly, panic had been replaced by pain. I forgot about the thundering mountain, completely distracted by the throbbing pain in my hand. Amazingly (and luckily), my legs had suffered minor scratches at the most, so we were able to make it down to the valley safely.

Oh, the falling boulders? I´m not sure when the rock slide actually stopped. But it did before we left the cirque, and it never got really close to where we were.

The moral of this story is, of course, to try and remain cool-blooded, particularly when a situation seems awry. Because chances are that panic will make everything more precarious.

No wonder authorities happily exploit this primal instinct, an emotionalized, panic-stricken citizen being a willing believer in and blind follower of whatever governments are telling them.

Government panic scale

So, by all means, don´t panic.

Unless, of course, authorities are trying to tell you that everything´s fine, and there is no problem whatsoever, for instance after an accident in a chemical installation. Or an accident in a nuclear powerplant (Harrisburg, Sellafield, Chernobyl).

Or (nuclear) warheads are accidentally being flown across the USA; or warheads have mysteriously going missing in the process (hmmm ... was it five or six warheads? C´mon guys, can´t be that hard to count up to six ... or is it?).

Or the mortgage crisis (aka credit crunch), and how it might ultimatively affect consumer spending, the health of the economy, the Fed deciding to keep lowering rates in the face of rising inflation and sky-rocketing oil prices, and a stock market that has just hit a new all time high. (Oh, and do we need another war to fend off the adverse economic effects of another bubble bursting?)

When that kind of shit hits the fan, perhaps it is time to hit that panic button, after all.

Panic button

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