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The First 30 Seconds

What you can do to thwart a panic attack in two common crisis situations

Bear encounter
Situation: You turn a corner in Glacier National Park to see a grizzly 50 feet away — and coming down the trail.

Reaction "You’re [probably] going to panic," says Dave Smith, author of Backcountry Bear Basics (Mountaineers Books, $16), "so channel your fear into positive action." Stand still, even if you want to run. Holding your ground shows the bear that you can defend yourself. Wait for it to react, or move away. Rehearse an action plan beforehand. Keep groups close together and always put an adult at the front. Pepper spary is both a useful deterrent and strong psychological security. Practice unholstering the canister until you can do it without looking or fumbling. Keep the spray at ready when traveling through prime bear zones like huckleberry patches and dense foliage.

Getting lost
Situation: Your uneasiness is confirmed when the trail dwindles to a game path.

Even when your life is not in immediate danger, you can panic. "It’s a physical response to a potential threat," says Jonathan Abramowitz, associate professor of psychology at UNC-Chapel Hill. Hyperventilation, a racing heartbeat, nausea, and loss of small motor skills can make you act irrationally. "Calm down by sitting down," says Gino Ferri, author of The Psychology of Wilderness Survival. "Then, eat and drink something." Because thoughts dictate your actions, rein in your imagination by taking an inventory: Where is the nearest road? How much water do I have? Stop panic from overtaking a group by being authoritative yet cool. Strong, soothing leadership is reassuring to others.

Severe injury
Situation: Suddenly, one of your partners collapses, screaming in pain. Your group gathers; his lower leg is grotesquely broken.

Reaction “Accident victims tend to be quiet,” says Buck Tilton, BACKPACKER’S Medicine Man and author of Wilderness First Responder (Falcon, $35). “It’s everyone else who panics.” Distraught bystanders can hyperventilate, talk incoherently, even collapse. Parents of injured kids are especially prone to overreaction. Tilton recommends removing onlookers from the scene by giving them a task. Overcome your own panic-induced paralysis by reverting to your first-aid training. Start with the ABCs— airway, breathing, circulation— then do a head-to-toe evaluation. “Relax yourself by concentrating on your breathing,” he says. “Then look for solutions.”

Situation: You’re hiking an exposed ridge, halfway to the summit, when lightning starts flashing.

Reaction: Your instinct to race for lower elevation could be wrong. “Lightning is dangerous, but unroped falls kill many more hikers,” says Al Read, president of Exum Mountain Guides in Jackson, WY. Find a sheltered location and devise an escape plan. As for other weather events, consider the situation and act accordingly. Limit your exposure to wind and rain. Monitor your body temperature and watch for signs of hypothermia, like shivering. Hunker down during whiteouts to conserve energy and avoid wandering off trail. “Bad weather is an external threat,” says Read, “but protecting yourself is an internal process.” Put on warm clothing, fuel your body with food and water, and evaluate changing conditions.

Exposure/ fear of heights
Situation: You’re hiking in the Tetons and get cliffed out. You’re gripped; you freeze up. Now what?

Reaction: “Inexperienced climbers stop thinking in crisis situations,” says Patrick Peterson, operations manager for Wyoming-based Jackson Hole Mountain Guides. “They get tunnel vision, they stop listening, and they start looking at the elephant in front of them instead of the individual steps to overcome it.” Talk yourself off a ledge by slowing down, compartmentalizing tasks, and busying your mind. “Focus on the little things you can control,” says Peterson. “Pre-climb the route ahead in your mind, focusing on one move at a time.” And don’t look down. Instead, take three deep breaths, find solid footholds and handholds (in that order), and slowly scurry out of danger.

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