Everyone, at some point in our lives, goes through the panic zone. We enter the panic zone when we push our limits too far. When we flirt with something that seems dangerous to us – whether on a physical or emotional level. When we feel compelled to do something that we perceive as alien and with which we do not identify.
Obviously, each person has their own fear zone. What is acceptable to some and even common may be unacceptable and extremely rare for others. That is why there are countless examples of the panic zone that vary from person to person. While someone may feel in their comfort zone practicing extreme sports or continually changing partners, for another person the mere prospect of these situations can generate real panic.
What is the panic zone?
The panic zone is an unknown territory in which we feel particularly uncomfortable because we have lost the references that normally help us orient ourselves in the world. In that area happen things that confuse us, collide head-on with our values and expectations, or are very difficult for us to accept. In this area our usual psychological tools are no longer useful, so we tend to feel particularly helpless, disoriented and defenseless.
The sensations generated by the panic zone
When we enter the panic zone, we experience unpleasant sensations. We may feel like we are losing control because the mind sets that we use to understand the world and make sense of it can no longer explain what is happening.
Losing the cardinal points generates great anxiety that sometimes borders on panic. It is not strange since the uncertainty that this area brings can make us fear the worst, generating that feeling of diffuse apprehension that accompanies anxiety.
Another common feeling in the panic zone is vulnerability. We feel especially fragile because the knowledge and skills that we have acquired and in which we trust to go ahead, are no longer as effective in solving the new challenges.
We realize that we do not have the necessary tools or that they cannot guarantee us good results. That makes us feel insecure. Therefore, in the panic zone we feel as if we are walking on glass that can break at any moment and harm us.
The possibilities of what is scaring us
In an ideal world, we would move from our comfort zone to the growth zone or magic zone, completely avoiding the panic zone. But we don’t live in an ideal world and things don’t always go according to plan. Sometimes, whether due to a bad decision of our own or fate, we find ourselves plunged into the panic zone.
Most psychologists advise that terrible things can happen in the panic zone, but it doesn’t always have to be that way. In this area we can also learn. In fact, it can become a kind of “accelerated learning zone”. As can be seen in the figure below, high performance experiences also occur in the panic zone that can be comparable – to some extent – with those that occur in the learning zone.
It is true that the panic zone puts us on the ropes, but extreme circumstances can bring out our best version. Cal Newport, a professor at Georgetown University, noticed that many of his students improved precisely after having children. It is paradoxical, since children are time consuming, so it must have been more difficult for new parents to be successful academically.
However, many times the difficulties that new challenges bring, forces us to take some things more seriously and do our best. Thus, what could initially be an example of a panic zone becomes a magic or learning zone.
This area also teaches us more about ourselves. When everything is going well and life flows as usual, we do not look inside ourselves often. However, when things go wrong we are forced to do an exercise in introspection. We wonder where we went wrong or what we need to change.
The panic zone, therefore, puts us face to face with our weak points. It shows us our limitations and teaches us that we are vulnerable and fragile. That teaching is extremely valuable because it is vulnerability that makes us more human, sensitive and empathetic.
How to get out of the panic zone?
Living in a state of panic and anxiety is neither pleasant nor recommended. Therefore, we must ensure that we move as soon as possible to the magic zone, the one where learning and growth take place. To get out of the panic zone, the most valuable tool at our disposal is radical acceptance.
Rather than denying problems or our difficulties, we need to acknowledge that we have reached a point where we feel overwhelmed. When we fight against something, we usually generate an opposing force that hits us with greater intensity. When we learn to flow we take advantage of that force in our favor.
In the panic zone, it is normal for us to feel unmotivated or even paralyzed. We need to take advantage of the sudden bursts of energy that often fuel anxiety, as psychologist Robert Kriegel explained. In those moments we must implement the actions that will allow us to get out of the panic zone, whether it is ending a toxic relationship, moving away from an unhealthy environment for a while or pausing in a project that has surpassed us to acquire a new perspective.
The panic zone, like everything in life, is a stage we go through. It is neither good nor bad in itself. It all depends on how long we stay in it and the attitude with which we face this stage.
Palethorpe, R. & Wilson, J. P. (2011) Learning in the panic zone: Strategies for managing learner anxiety. Journal of European Industrial Training; 35(5): 420-438.
Kriegel, R., & Kriegel, M. H. (1984) The C Zone: Peak performance under pressure. Training & Development Journal; 38(11): 79–81.