The lifesaving ingenuity of immediate panic

Panic is an essential survival emotion that arises in response to a direct threat to your physical life.

Panic is related to fear, but while fear is an instinctual and intuitive emotion that arises in response to change, novelty, and possible physical hazards, panic arises when you actually need to save your own life.

The ingenious actions you can take in response to your fear number in the thousands, but with panic, there are four basic responses: Fight, Flee, Freeze, or Flock to Safety. And if you can drop into your instincts and listen to your body, your panic will choose the right response pretty much every time.

Immediate Panic: The Powerful Protector 

GIFTS: Sudden energy ~ Fixed attention ~ Absolute stillness ~ Survival instincts

WHAT YOUR IMMEDIATE PANIC DOES: Immediate panic arises when your physical life is directly and immediately threatened.

WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE: You have four main choices during immediate emergencies: Fight, flee, freeze, or flock to safety. Listen to your body – don’t think, just react. Your instinctual body is a survival expert, and it will keep you safe.

THE INTERNAL QUESTIONS (during the emergency): What is currently a threat? Please help me fight, flee, freeze, or flock to safety. 

If any of these panic responses save you from harm or save your life, then they’re the perfect, genius responses. If you’ve survived, you’re a survival expert. Thank you, panic!

Some people add other responses to long-term panic-inducing situations, or to panic responses that occur in the presence of bigger or stronger others: fawn (or friend) — or learning how to please an abuser person as a form of self-protection. 

There is also a flooding response, which is kind of freezing and fleeing at the same time — you may be completely immobilized, but you’re filled with intense emotions that may make you go blank from overwhelm.

Panic is what I call a “raging rapids” emotion, and it can be a doozy, but it has to be! Panic arises when your physical life is in actual danger. It’s powerful because its power is required.

You need your panic. Immediate panic is crucial for your survival. 

Luckily, your panic is always available

Here’s an important thing to know: You need panic – life is hazardous, and there will continue to be times when your panic will need to come forward to help you to fight, flee, freeze, flock to safety, dissociate, flood, fawn, or go numb.

Panic isn’t the problem; it comes to help you with the problem! Long tern difficulties only arise when this powerful emotion gets caught in a feedback loop, but those problems exist in all emotions – even joy!

You’re not supposed to erase your powerful emotions; you’re supposed to become skilled at working with them. Your healing tasks in the territory of panic are to restore your flow so that panic can move through you when it needs to – during emergencies and potential traumas – and to restore your resilience after your panic has risen up to save your life. Panic is your ally.

If your panic lingers, bodily movement can help you heal and reintegrate yourself. Dance, free-form movement, yoga, dao in, and tai chi, swimming, hiking, biking, and sports can help you restore your flexibility, your flow, your strength, and your playfulness.

Martial arts and self-defense classes are also wonderfully supportive, because they teach you the honorable rules of engagement for physical conflicts.

Model mugging workshops are also an excellent idea – but be sure to tell the instructor you’re working with your panic responses. The model mugger needs to know that when you fight back, your panic may give you superhuman strength! Model muggers are heavily padded and expertly trained, but a word to the wise is never wasted!

You need your panic to protect yourself

Remember that no type of practice will erase panic; healing practices simply restore your flow. When your flow is restored, you’ll be able to connect healthfully to all of your emotions, and if necessary, to flee, fight, freeze, flock to safety, fawn, flood, or dissociate in the future if those are your best survival options.

Then, when the emergency has passed and you’ve survived, you’ll be able to use your skills to integrate your experience and restore your resilience once again.

If, however, your panic stays active, increases, or begins to cycle, go to the next post on frozen panic.

Thank you, panic!

Related post: Embracing the healing genius of frozen panic


8 Responses

  1. madeline bailey
    | Reply

    Hi. I wanted to thank Tino, who spoke with me briefly at your workshop about healing trauma. In your audiobook, Energetic Boundaries, you talk about trauma being an initiation of the soul into a “walk about” and recovery being welcomed back into the tribe. I love, love, love that discovery. So at the workshop, I asked Tino how ones comes back into the tribe where there is no one who understands enough to share in ritual, and he said, “guidance, personal ritual, and use of an altar”. Since my trauma is around money, I had this idea of creating an altar with a bowl of water, and tossing coins into it. He said that sounded like a wishing well and gave it his seal of approval. I went to buy a bowl and couldn’t find what I envisioned, so I decided that being frugal was called for, plus i didn’t want to wait, so something I owned already would be perfect. I filled it half full with water, (get it, half full?) and the coins will fill it up. I started with a Susan B Anthony dollar that someone gave me as a quarter, so I had put it aside as special. I had some silver dollars on hand so i started tossing them into my water. Since that day, work has never been so good or so easy. The irony of this is that my work is based on a gift I have for making other people rich(er), which is how I finally realized that my problem is trauma. Hopefully I can start growing now that I’m back in the tribe. So thanks to both of you for your work, workshops, and Tino for helping me personally. God bless!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thanks Madeline; Tino and I are so glad that your ritual and the altar are helpful for you! We both find that even though they are often quite simple and easy to set up, rituals, shrines, and altars can help us address issues that are very difficult and troubling. There is a talent for the sacred inside people, and these approaches really tend to bring that talent forward in a lovely way. Many blessings from us!

  2. jj
    | Reply

    What can be done with fear that is free-associated combined with anxiety from a source that is pre-verbal and is not identifiable in terms of memory but resides solely in the unconscious and might even be generational – i.e. coded in DNA?

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hi JJ — that’s a situation for deeper work, perhaps somatic therapy, which is a lovely practice to gently inquire into what’s going on with your body.

      Peter Levine has developed a very good somatic practice for trauma, and he’s got licensed trainers all over the world. His site is here, and the practitioner registry is on the blue button at the top.

      Another good and gentle practice is Focusing, and this site explains it (the practitioner registry is on the right-hand side).

      I hope those help.

  3. Jennifer Engracio
    | Reply

    I love your work, Karla. As an empath myself, I’ve found your research to help me validate what I know and to hone how I work with my own emotions and those of others. I’ve worked with your books for many years. Although I understand the need for containing the virus and am following the precautions and self-distancing, I am concerned about the panic that has been whipped up in the media around the COVID-19 virus to the extent to which it seems to be affecting peoples’ emotional and mental health adversely. How can we work with panic in a good way in the face of a global pandemic? Thanks for your thoughts on this.

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Hi Jennifer, good questions. First, being on a media diet is always important, because most media outlets are more focused on ratings than on journalism.

      This isn’t true for all media, but it’s true often enough that most media needs to be treated as a possible toxin. This includes friends’ posts on social media; people really have to develop a critical eye.

      I just sent out a newsletter about the three fears that we should be working with — it’s important not to avoid emotions, because they contain genius, but to avoid people who try to jack into your emotions for their own ignorant or creepy purposes.

      Choose your inputs very, very wisely: Gavin de Becker, the author of the wonderful book, The Gift of Fear, wrote decades ago about avoiding TV news because it’s built for excitement, gore, quick cuts, endless repetition, and hype. He warned that this type of irresponsible hype would increase your fear for no good reason. The internet, however, has turned this hype into a 24-hour situation.

      If your online media diet is increasing your fear, anxiety, or panic (or your rage and paranoia), find more sober, slow, and grounded venues and people who aren’t trying to hype you up. You don’t need to be hyped and buzzed; you need to be informed.

      Here’s the whole newsletter

  4. kirsten
    | Reply

    I am beyond grateful to have found your work. The perspective shift I have received from your work is life changing. I wanted to share that my daughter seemed to have school anxiety but upon reading more about the emotions I think its actually panic. When she gets into her panic loop she gags and then the gagging scares her so she panics about gagging and the loop continues. I am feeling relieved that I now have a more accurate idea of which emotion she is stuck in and I can now get her appropriate help. I have so much gratitude for your work. xoxo

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Hello Kirsten.

      I’m so glad that this was helpful! Panic is such a vital emotion, and it gets confused with anxiety so often. Each has its own important work to do, and neither can do the work of the other!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *