I visited Australia recently, where two things happened to me that put some things into perspective regarding automatic or emotional reactions.
In Sydney one night, I went out for some drinks in the evening. I stayed at a place for a little too long, drank a little too much, and decided to go home. After I left I realized… I forgot my backpack in the bar. It was too late to go back in; after a certain hour it’s illegal for them to let people inside. So, figuring there was nothing I could do, I went to my hotel and went to sleep.
In the morning with a clear head, I realized the gravity of what I had done: in a crowded bar filled with drunk strangers, I left my backpack sitting alone. My laptop was inside; anyone could have taken it. My passport was inside, and my flight leaving Australia was a few days away. It was an incredibly stupid thing to do.
I felt almost no anxiety at all.
I got out of bed, cleaned myself up, and walked back to the bar. They were closed until 4PM, so I went next door for a coffee, and chatted casually with the barista about whether someone could help me before then. She casually replied that it’s best to just come back at 4PM. So I killed some time walking around the city. I thought, “Hmm, if my passport is gone, then I can’t leave Australia.” I Googled the US Consulate in Sydney and the procedure for replacing a lost passport. I thought, “Hmm, if my laptop is gone, then I won’t be able to work for several weeks while it is replaced. Also, it costs thousands of dollars.” I checked my insurance information and planned for that too. I put a plan in place about what I would do if, in fact, my backpack was gone forever.
I still felt almost no anxiety at all.
I think this reaction will be extremely surprising to most people. If I imagine almost anyone else I know in this situation, the reaction would be PANIC: “Oh god oh god oh god, what have I done!? This is terrible!” They may still have done all the necessary productive things I did, in terms of planning ahead to replace their passport, but I think most people would do so with a high level of anxiety and frustration.
And, in the end, the bartender had picked up my bag and he gave it back to me at 4PM. I said “thanks man, you’re a lifesaver” but didn’t really mean it; I felt a twinge of relief at things being back to normal, but that was about it.
The vacation part of the trip was a weekend visit to Cairns to see the Great Barrier Reef. I booked an all-day cruise which included a beginner scuba dive. This was super exciting: I’ve never been scuba-ing, and most places require a certification before you can even start. But here they would let us go as far as 10m underwater with full gear after only a brief tutorial (with a high level of oversight by a professional, of course).
So we had our tutorial, mostly about how to breathe (easy, right?), and afterwards I was in the first group to dive. I understood 100% what to do. I felt comfortable in my scuba gear. But when I went down for the first time, to hold to the bottom of the boat and just practice breathing underwater, I panicked. BAD. I couldn’t breathe. Or rather, I could breathe, but I felt like I needed to breathe more, and more. You’re supposed to take long and full breaths, but mine felt shallow. After 20 seconds or so I motioned to the instructor that I needed to surface.
I tried once more and stayed down a little longer, looking straight in the instructor’s face as he motioned with his hand the pattern of breathing. But as soon as he turned away, I panicked again. I couldn’t breathe. I surfaced again and decided not to continue.
This was about the safest underwater situation you could imagine. These guys are professionals, who do this every day. I’m holding on to a boat, 1m below the surface, my instructor right next to me, with a button on my side that will literally make me float to the surface anytime I decide to press it. And still I had to quit. (My mindfulness practice did not kick in, I guess; interesting to note.)
I’m not a person who is prone to panic; the first story probably gives that impression. I’ve skydived before, with no problem. But this time the panic came and I was powerless to stop it.
I don’t know what to take away from these experiences, except that I’m grateful that I tend not to panic very often. Some people get very nervous on planes, and in the past I never understood it; planes are extraordinarily safe, nothing is going to happen, so why do these people panic? I get it now. My scuba instructor was right next to me, I was 1m underwater, and I panicked anyway. It was an automatic reaction that was not in my control. I’m extremely glad it doesn’t happen when I fly.
It also makes me wonder whether panic is ever a productive reaction. From the inside, it feels very out of control, and that makes me think it is probably neutral at best. (On the other hand, if you’re being chased by a lion or something, maybe the panic reaction will make you run a little faster.) In any case, I think for me, living a comfortable modern life, on average I want to panic very little to none; the answer to that is more mindfulness.