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Why you react the way you do in a crisis, according to a former Navy psychologist

Why are some people calm and rational, while others become fearful and paralyzed? According to a former military psychologist, it all comes down to training and experience.

Why you react the way you do in a crisis, according to a former Navy psychologist
[Photo: Tara Moore/Getty Images]

There is a classic scene in any disaster movie: The tsunami, or earthquake, or alien descends, and everyone runs, screaming.

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But while this may be true in some situations, that’s not necessarily a typical reaction to danger. As science journalist Zaria Gorvett wrote for the BBC in 2017, most people are actually slow to move or do anything when they’re in high-stakes circumstances. “The reality is the most natural human response in the face of danger is to simply do nothing,” writes Gorvett.

Of course, there are also some people who seem to be able to remain calm and collected in the most dangerous situations. Rather than freezing, they act quickly and decisively.

So why is it that some people seem to cope better in critical situations, while others become paralyzed and end up putting themselves in greater danger? Fast Company caught up with Russell Shilling, chief scientific officer for the American Psychology Association and a former Navy aerospace experimental psychologist, to find out why.

Your brain on fear

According to Shilling, people’s reactions to danger depend a lot on how they’re wired, what they’ve learned in the past, their exposure to stress, and their preconceived notions of what constitutes danger. “If you’re primed to be afraid of flying, you’re more likely to have a strong reaction to things going on in an airplane, such as turbulence,” Shilling says. However, you might not have the same response in other circumstances, he says. For example, you’ll probably react differently if you’re in a fire. 

When people freeze, Shilling says, they’re experiencing a fight or flight response. “You’re trying to find a plan on how to react,” but cognition becomes difficult because your limbic systems aren’t working properly. “You basically look like you’re freezing, but your mind is trying to plan your way through it,” Shilling explains.

Some level of fear, however, can be productive in noncritical situations. When I asked Shilling whether fear manifests differently when we’re in less critical situations—for example, just before a salary negotiation, or when we’re about to speak in front of a large crowd—he says that ultimately, “on the brain level, there are a lot of similarities.” Whether you’re afraid of failing a test or seeing a mountain lion in the wild, your limbic systems work in the same way when you’re experiencing a fight or flight reaction. The difference, Shilling says, is the intensity of the reaction. (Shilling acknowledges that psychologists do have disagreements on this point.)

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In less critical situations, he says, while you might get ramped up and experience all the symptoms of fear and stress, “your brain is still operating enough that you’re still functioning.” A fight or flight reaction causes stress, and some level of stress can actually be good for performance. But, as Tim Cannon previously wrote for Fast Company, there is a point to which stress (and fear) becomes counterproductive.

The importance of preparation

It’s possible some people are inherently more rational and calm in the face of danger, but ultimately, it comes down to their experience and training. Shilling, who spent 22 years as an experimental psychologist in the military, says that much of the training he conducted was geared toward being able to react in a calm and rational way when facing danger. “If you’ve been heavily trained, you’ve already got a set of responses that you’re ready to use, so you don’t have to spend a lot of that time [thinking about what to do]. Your training kicks in.”

Writer and pilot Kim Green echoed this sentiment in a previous article for Fast Company. The reason why pilots are rigorously trained in crisis management, Green explained, is because no matter how competent or skilled one is, when it comes to emergencies, they need to be able to follow systems and checklists without having to think about it. Green wrote, “It’s not that pilots are born preternaturally calm in the face of danger; it’s that we review emergency procedures so many times that they come to seem almost routine. Pilots don’t like surprises, but we learn to be ready for them.”

The impact of negative news exposure

Shilling admits that we’re living in a time where the negative exposure has primed us to be stressed and fearful in statistically low-risk situations. “Being exposed to these events on television on a daily basis really traumatizes us based on our panic response,” he says. “What we need to be doing is to think through these situations. What am I going to do if I’m in one of these situations? How do I think I’m going to react?”

These are questions that pilots, military officials, and firefighters all ask themselves (and are trained to answer), but is a practice that everyone can benefit from adopting. Shilling, for example, has had this discussion with his own family. Before they go to a large event, they set up an emergency plan so that everyone knows what to expect from each other.

The idea, he says, is to be aware of where the nearest exits are, the size of the crowd, and to have some sort of plan—without being overly anxious. He does admit that thinking too much about the worst-case scenario is a double-edged sword, because like fear and stress, there comes a point for when constant planning for the worst can impair your quality of life.

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At its core, our tendency to freeze and resort to fight or flight mode the moment we sense any sense of danger (however small) typically stems from a sense of helplessness. Training and preparation, Shilling says, “can give [us] a sense of control.” We can’t always predict how we’ll react in a critical situation, but we can train ourselves to use a set of practices, should we ever find ourselves needing them.

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About the author

Anisa is the assistant editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. She covers everything from productivity to the future of work

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