“I wouldn’t want someone afraid to cross a river to pop a Xanax on the bank,” Auerbach adds. “It could slow their reflexes. And in the case of a bear encounter, you want the bear to take Xanax. Not you.”
According to Auerbach, there are only two field-proven ways to prevent or mitigate panic: 1) Understand the psychology and physiology of panic, along with its symptoms and treatment, so you can quickly recognize the symptoms and immediately implement stress-reduction methods. 2) Train yourself for specific, potential panic situations.
Most of us head into the hills with considerable gear and a sizable set of technical skills. We know how to use a map and compass—because we’ve practiced it. We know how to set up our tent and light our stove—because we’ve practiced it. We may even know how to splint a leg or identify the symptoms of altitude sickness—again, because we’ve practiced. But how many of us practice panic? Not enough. And that’s a problem NOLS instructor Schimelpfenig is trying to remedy.
“In our wilderness medicine classes, to practice self-rescue, we’ll actually chop a hole in the ice of [Wyoming's] Popo Agie River and ask volunteers to jump in,” says Schimelpfenig. “It hurts right away. Their breathing and heart rate skyrocket.”