Monday, October 5, 2009

A Shrink goes Spelunking

How do you know you have what it takes?

Recently I was back on the East Coast for a wedding of our good friends Jon and Kelly in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. The day of the wedding we had some time to kill so a few of my friends and I went to Luray Caverns. Before I get into the story too deep I just want to mention how good it was to see old friends. Well not really old friends but I hadn’t seen these folks for 2 months. I missed them.

We’re at the caves and I’m walking through them listening to my audio-guided self tour. All of a sudden two teenagers come barreling past me. It’s a boy with his arm around the shoulders of a girl who looks like she is about to collapse. She is audibly panting to catch her breath and even without much ambient light I could see a look of fright in her eyes. It’s obvious to me what’s happening. She’s having a panic attack. The kids get past me and further up in the tunnels I can hear an adult chaperone with the kids. The adult is doing the best he can to calm the girl down but my guess is that it was probably making things worse. Voices echo down there but it sure sounded like he was screaming at her “BREATHE, BREATHE, LISTEN TO ME, BREATHE!” Good advice but maybe not the best delivery. Then a cave docent comes running past and I hear someone saying “Call 911!” Later when I got out of the cave my friends told me they heard the boy shouting “TAKE OFF HER SHIRT.” Teenage boys will do anything to get a girl’s shirt off!

On my car ride back from the caves I took a look back at my internal dialogue during that event. As soon as those kids passed me I started listing reasons why I shouldn’t go and provide assistance. “I don’t want to get in the way”; “Too many cooks in the kitchen”; “They are too far ahead now”, etc. In fact the only thing I had done was make a half-audible announcement to the crowd in the cave who looked on helplessly, “Don’t worry everyone, she’ll be fine, its probably just a panic attack.” Nobody even paid me attention. But the reality is that more than likely I was the most qualified person in that cave to handle that situation. I should have leaped into action. Calmed the panicky-teenage girl down. Educated her friends and teachers about panic attacks. Instead I was busy coming up with reasons I shouldn’t get involved.

It’s made me reflect on other times I froze in the heat of the moment. When I was a lifeguard and should have made a save but instead I sat in my tower incapacitated. My mind was going over reasons why I should let the other lifeguard finish the save even though she was swimming like a sloth. Or the handful of times in high-school or college when punk kids have challenged me to fights. I wuss out. I don’t rise to the occasion. Sure it’s easy to say later “Its better not to have fought them.” But it leaves me wondering if I had what it takes.

I’m realizing now that a lot of my freeze response has to do with the environment. If I’m solo then I go into immediate response mode (I did have a save the previous summer when I was the only lifeguard on duty). But if other people are around I immediately think about my potential actions through their eyes. I analyze how I’ll look from their perspective. This is a well studied aspect of human nature called the bystander effect. So I’m not alone in being its victim but somehow that doesn’t seem to matter to me.

After something like that happens I always make a promise to myself. Like “I will always intervene if I’m in a cave and someone is having a panic attack.” Or “I will always jump in to save someone if they are drowning.” But the problem with this post hoc strategy is that these situations rarely arise again. I’m still left wondering “Do I have what it takes?”


  1. Let me tell you - it isn't only teenage boys that act that way!

    When I talk to myself after a bystander effect event(nice to have a name for it) I am absolutely certain I don't have what it takes to be a hero. I think a hero just "does" without thinking - my body is slow enough that the mind takes over.

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  3. always funny and thought provoking entries, as if you were a psych phD. =) keep up the good work! hope seattle is treating you well!

  4. Have some kids...and your hesitation will disappear. I promise you "have what it takes." (PS. You may want to wait a few years to prove this theorem)