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The Psychology of Panic

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What is panic? What are its symptoms and indicators? What causes panic? Why does one person panic while another is ice-cool in the same circumstances? What effects does panic have, short and long-term? What can be done to prevent or reduce panic? What does panic teach us about our psychological make-up?

Panic is defined as a sudden strong feeling of fear that prevents reasonable thought and action. Most people have experienced an event that was so overwhelming that fear and anxiety blocked rational decision-making.

Symptoms of panic can vary between people, and are usually drawn from:

  • a strong perception of imminent threat (existential, physical, emotional, intellectual, financial )
  • a fear of or an actual loss of control
  • dramatically elevated heart rate
  • palpitations
  • raised blood pressure
  • restricted breathing
  • throat tightness
  • a choking sensation
  • trembling
  • hot and/or cold flushes
  • dizziness or fainting, nausea
  • perspiring
  • a desire to empty the bladder and bowels
  • an inability to think clearly, or at all
  • emotional overwhelm
  • freezing

Panic has many causes. Some people are more disposed to panic than others, either by way of their genetics or by the role models they had. Others can stay calm and focused because they have had effective training, or have rehearsed how to handle a situation that would cause most people to panic.

A rare few, seem to think most clearly in life and death situations that would cause most people to panic and or freeze. Some people with no training and no preparation for a situation that would trigger panic in most, have a mindset, that enables them to see that problem as a learning opportunity: “Whatever happens here, I will learn and be stronger for it.”

Short-term panic triggers many undesirable health consequences, some of which are very serious. Raised blood pressure and heart rate can, have and do trigger strokes and heart problems.

When panic becomes regularised, it is often described as anxiety or chronic anxiety, with a large number of negative health consequences, ranging from mild to serious. For instance, regular panic has a negative effect on the digestive system and suppresses the body’s immune responses, both of which trigger further negative health consequences.

Training is hugely helpful in minimising or preventing panic. Military, police, fire, emergency medical and other staff, all over the world are trained to deal with complex life and death situations calmly and constructively.

In a few rare situations, even that training is not enough to prevent people from going into a panic freeze when the situation is real rather than classroom-based. The following techniques are useful to prevent panic from taking hold, and if it has, they can be used to reduce or remove the panic.


Taking deep breaths and focusing on breathing, takes the mind off the negative and catastrophising thoughts that are generally associated with panic.

Change the focus of thoughts

Panic usually is linked to, or even caused by negative and disempowering thoughts. Focusing on more constructive thoughts reduces the panic, or prevents it from emerging. For instance, the most common phobia in the world is that of public speaking (impacting around 70% of, people).

When I am coaching leaders in public speaking or delivering lectures or talking myself to large audiences, I encourage focus on how the people there are going to have their lives improved by the information and techniques shared, and how much they will enjoy it if learning is made fun.

Replace negative thoughts

If any negative thought emerges, it can be replaced with a more constructive one. For instance, again, with public speaking (the mere thought of it causes panic in many people), if the thought emerges: ‘They are going to hate me,’ replace it with: ‘Almost all audiences want to see a speaker doing well; they are going to support me to get that.’

Face the situation

Much as people naturally want to absent themselves from a situation that is making them, or they feel will make them panic, running away, rarely helps. That is often the starting gun for a lifetime phobia and an inability to master emotions. Military training involves live-fire for very good reasons. It is to show the soldiers that they can learn to handle their natural fear, as real bullets are flying, and still function well.

Indeed, that may be the best way to handle situations that would make others panic; to remind ourselves that fear is normal and healthy in the face of danger, and to see it as giving us the alertness and energy to deal with the challenge ahead. Too little alertness and energy to handle a situation is problematic, as is too much, to the point of panic. As with most aspects of life, there is a zone of optimum performance.

The world’s most successful people in any field have learned to handle situations that would make almost everyone else panic, freeze or completely avoid. Bit by bit, as the highest performers in any field, go through their careers they become more and more skilled at managing and harnessing the normal human emotions, in abnormally constructive ways.

There are many reports of people acquiring super-human strength under the influence of panic; it can be constructive, in some rare situations. There are enormously more cases where the mind has rendered a person incapable of responding when a simple act would have saved the day.

If panic happens to us, what does that teach us about our psychological make-up?

It sends a signal to us, individually and collectively, that we still have room to develop our ability to master our thoughts and emotions.

Compared to our relatively safe and well-protected lives, ancient people had many more challenges and had to learn better than us, how to deal with serious threats. What did some of them say about learning to manage the mind?

Each time we face a challenge, we have a choice: to be a victim of circumstance or a victor over circumstance. That choice can best be made if we can stay relatively calm. Mastery of panic indicates mastery of the mind.

Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.


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