When Should You Panic?

The short answer:  Never.   

Not that you won’t, not that you are bad or weak if you do. But “Should” implies that it is the best and most appropriate response. When is it REASONABLE to panic? When will large number of other people panic therefore justifying an “it is human to behave in this manner” response?  Different questions.

Fighting?  Rational and reasonable and often optimal.  Running?  The same.  Sitting and accepting the inevitable?  The same, if rational consideration shows there is no hope.   

There is a story of a monk who is walking in the woods when he is suddenly attacked by a tiger.  He runs, and reaches the edge of a cliff.  A thousand feet straight down onto rocks.

Seizing a vine, he climbs down.  A few feet down, however, he sees a cobra coiled on a ledge below him…and climbs back up. The tiger swats at him, snarling from the edge of the cliff.   The cobra waits below, hissing and spitting.   And… the vine begins to rip its way out of the cliff.  

The monk looks to his right, and there is a strawberry plant growing out of the rock.  He plucks a strawberry and eats it. He smiles and says: “delicious.”


Unpack this story for a moment.   The monk is threatened by a tiger.  He does not fight the tiger–he knows he will lose. He does not give up “I cannot outrun a tiger!  I will die” and freeze. He runs.

Reaches a cliff.  He doesn’t give up and freeze, he doesn’t throw himself off, committing suicide. He climbs.   

He sees a cobra on a ledge. He doesn’t ignore the danger and get bitten.  He climbs back up: maybe the Tiger has gone away!

The tiger is still there.   He contemplates just staying there until the situation changes…and the vine begins to fray.   

NOW it is totally reasonable to assume all is lost.  He has done everything reasonable and rational to preserve life.  Does he panic?   No.  Why?

I like what the Dalai Lama said about the purpose of life: to be happy.  To seize all the joy one can find in life, remembering that long-term happiness encourages traits of honesty, courage, compassion, and sharing.   There is no conflict between happiness and a moral, productive life.

But the ultimate reality of all living things is that they die. This was the Monk’s moment.  And in that moment, when all had been tried, all fighting, running, planning, plotting and figuring had been rendered irrelevant, he found something beautiful to focus upon, allowing him to close his life with joy.

That series of reactions is as logical and reasonable as behaviors can be.   While it would be typical, understandable, human to panic and dissolve from fear, PANIC IS NOT OPTIMAL.   Never is.  Optimal would, in most cases, be feeling the fear (motivation to act) while remaining as focused and rational as possible, seeing options and reckoning odds.  But working backwards from “what is true?” the Monk agreed with the idea that “the meaning of life is to be happy.”  And refused to allow the external events to determine his internal states.

People who survive emergencies when others die are the ones who (assuming their survival is not luck) could see opportunities and take action.  Panic creates the “stress tunnel” that stops us from seeing possibilities.  Diminishes BOTH our efficiency and effectiveness in survival/success and destroys the joy in our lives.  When combined with a sense that all is lost, that there is nowhere to run and no one to fight, it becomes depression:  “why bother?”

So no, panic is never the only or best reaction.   Never.  If you want to survive, find a way to remain as calm as possible.  If you want to be of help, you will need to take a leadership role, and people seek out those who remain calm under stress.  

HOW do you remain calm?    This is best practiced BEFORE an emergency occurs, of course.  Meditation and other practices help develop this steadiness of mind. Slow your breathing down below 3-4 per minute and your CO2 levels soar, triggering the sympathetic nervous system to create a fear/panic response.  You can learn to relax and calm this response, and the practice has great carry-over to life.

But if you are already in the “Stress Tunnel” you may not be able to calm yourself in such a way.  In that case, use the Morning Ritual and the Five Minute Miracle.  They work, if you will work them. Then when the panic recedes you can use Heartbeat Meditation and the Ancient Child (for instance).

The Revolutionary Writing program is about using the power of storytelling to both nurture your own soul AND provide value to the world, lend perspective and offer harmony, things that are of critical impact in stressful times.  

The important thing is to find your way.  No matter what is happening externally, you can find internal peace, calm, focus.  And from that place, IF there is a solution, you are most likely to find it. And if there is none..?

You’ll find that strawberry, and life will be as delicious as possible, the soul alive even if the body perishes.

I’d call that a win.




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