Losing Your Head: Why It Makes Things Worse (And What You Can Do to Stop It)

Feeling panicky? Starting to lose your head?

Here are 6 simple steps to get your brain out of the basement and confronting your challenges before they overwhelm you.

Losing Your Head: Apatheia & How Not to Panic

The Downward Spiral and the High Cost of Losing Your Head

One perfectly normal day, Josh Waitzkin—eight-time National Chess Champion and the subject of the film Searching for Bobby Fischer—was walking to a chess class he was teaching in Manhattan.

He stood waiting at a light when a pretty young woman wearing headphones walked up a few feet next to him.

While looking down the wrong way on Broadway, she stepped directly into oncoming traffic. A bicycle bearing down on her blind side swerved and barely missed her.

“In my memory, time stops right here. This was the critical moment in the woman’s life. She could have walked away unscathed if she had just stepped back onto the pavement, but instead she turned and cursed the fast-pedaling bicyclist,” writes Waitzkin in The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence.

The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin: Book Cover

Cover image copyright Free Press. Used under fair use.

While she stood with her back to traffic and shouted at the departing bicyclist, a taxicab struck the woman and sent her flying into the air. She hit a lamppost and fell unconscious. Waitzkin and others called an ambulance and police and waited with her to be taken to the hospital.

Shaken, Waitzkin continued onto his chess class. He knew he needed to say something about what had just occurred. He decided to relate it to the chess lesson he was about to give, doing his best not to trivialize the woman’s accident.

One idea I taught was the importance of regaining presence and clarity of mind after making a serious error. This is a hard lesson for all competitors and performers. The first mistake rarely proves disastrous, but the downward spiral of the second, third, and fourth error creates a devastating chain reaction.

Wearing headphones was probably the woman’s first mistake. Headphones playing loudly masks out the noise of traffic, which impart crucial signals about danger. There was no way for her to hear any oncoming traffic, cars honking, bicycle bells ringing.

The second mistake was looking the wrong way and stepping into oncoming traffic.

However, it was the third mistake that proved to be the most severe. After the bicyclist nearly hit her, that should have been the wake-up call that she needed to sense that something was wrong. But instead, she got angry.

“She wasn’t hurt, but instead of reacting with alertness, she was spooked into anger, irritated that her quiet had been shattered,” Waitzkin writes. That last mistake completed the vicious, downward cycle of her accident.

Waitzkin says “momentum” in sports is largely a byproduct of this downward spiral, not an entity unto itself.

“With young chess players, the downward spiral dominates competitive lives. In game after game, beginners fall to pieces after making the first mistake.” The difference between winning and losing is small and there are many opportunities to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and vice versa.

(On some level, this had to be what happened to both Super Bowl coaches last night at the end of the game.)

Let’s take a less vivid, do-or-die, life-threatening scenario i.e. changing jobs or roles at work, getting laid off, having to move for a spouse’s job, or striking out on your own as a lifestyle entrepreneur. Any major change likely to induce feelings of overwhelm.

What causes some people to panic, freeze up, lose their cool, and do exactly the wrong thing at the absolute worst time?

How do other people remain calm, flexible, adaptable, and agile in the face of overwhelming change?

How do you avoid the downward spiral?

Apatheia: Staying Calm in the Face of the Storm

The Obstacle Is the Way by Ryan Holiday: Book Cover

Cover image copyright Portfolio. Used under fair use.

In The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials Into Triumphs, noted marketer and “media manipulator” Ryan Holiday connects the panic—the beginning of Waitzkin’s downward spiral—with our evolutionary psychology:

When people panic, they make mistakes. They override systems. They disregard procedures, ignore rules. They deviate from the plan. They become unresponsive and stop thinking clearly. They just react—not to what they need to react to, but to the survival hormones that are coursing through their veins.

Welcome to the source of most of our problems down here on Earth. Everything is planned down to the letter, then something goes wrong and the first thing we do is trade in our plan for a good ol’ emotional freak-out. Some of us almost crave sounding the alarm, because it’s easier than dealing with whatever is staring us in the face.

The key to effective response (and avoiding the downward spiral) is to not lose your head and keep your faculties about you.

Obstacles make us emotional, but there’s no way to overcome them without keeping those emotions in check. A steady hand in a stressful situation is worth more than the best-laid plans.

The Greek word for this calm-in-the-face-of-a-storm attitude is apatheia:

It’s the kind of calm equanimity that comes with the absence of irrational or extreme emotions. Not the loss of feeling altogether, just the loss of the harmful, unhelpful kind. Don’t let the negativity in, don’t let those emotions even get started. Just say: No, thank you. I can’t afford to panic.

You have to focus your energies on solving the problem, after all. Not freaking out about them. Because freaking out about your problem creates its own sort of obstacle:

It’s a huge step forward to realize that the worst thing to happen is never the event, but the event and losing your head. Because then you’ll have two problems (one of them unnecessary and post hoc).

There’s a moment before freaking out emotionally when you can step back and force yourself to consider the alternative:

Subconsciously, we should be constantly asking ourselves this question: Do I need to freak out about this?

And the answer—like it is for astronauts, for soldiers, for doctors, and for so many other professionals—must be: No, because I practiced for this situation and I can control myself. Or, No, because I caught myself and I’m able to realize that that doesn’t add anything constructive.

Freaking out, losing your head, panicking—it’s rarely constructive and almost always detrimental.

But is there something worse than losing your head?

Lose Your Head or Shut Down: What’s Worse?

When people are faced with overwhelming change, instead of panicking or losing their cool, one natural reaction is to simply shut down:

They overestimate the resilience of the status quo and underestimate the driving need for innovation. They make excuses, close their eyes to the world around them, and lull themselves to sleep with naive cliches such as, “Things will get better on their own,” or, “I’m sure the worst is behind us.” When those phrases begin floating around your mind—or your organization—you can expect that the calamity of unforeseen change is barreling forward, and ready to mow you down.

That’s Josh Linkner writing in The Road to Reinvention: How to Drive Disruption and Accelerate Transformation. His point is that people are great at rationalizing away the danger of imminent change.

Rejection of reality is a form of shutting down. It’s a way of preempting the possibility of making a mistake—you can always claim you were caught off guard or by surprise later instead of facing up to the idea that you simply weren’t prepared or nimble enough to survive the change.

Self-awareness is absolutely necessary before you formulate a response. Doing the latter without the former always leads to a bad response. And sometimes it leads to disaster, in the case of the lady crossing the street in The Art of Learning.

Defiance + Acceptance: There Is Always a Countermove

Ryan Holiday in The Obstacle Is the Way has a framework for responding to crisis. And it all depends on nerve:

Ultimately, nerve is a matter of defiance and control.

Like: I refuse to acknowledge that. I don’t agree to be intimidated. I resist the temptation to declare this a failure.

But nerve is also a matter of acceptance: Well, I guess it’s on me then. I don’t have the luxury of being shaken up about this or replaying close calls in my head. I’m too busy and too many people are counting on me.

I’ve found in my experience that the most profound truths tend to come in the form of a paradox—and that’s not just the Buddhist in me talking. The paradox of defiance and acceptance is a close kin to the paradox of tough-minded optimism and the Stockdale Paradox.

So it’s not surprising that a paradox lies at the heart of apatheia, or responding well to disruption, crisis, and change.

Defiance is the upstart’s belief that you can make an impact. Acceptance comes from a core awareness of the reality of your situation. The paradox is at the forefront of all your actions in an emergent situation.

Defiance and acceptance come together well in the following principle: There is always a countermove, always an escape or a way through, so there is no reason to get worked up.

But how do we keep our heads and not lose our cool in heated situations?

“Am I Going to Die From This?”

Extreme emotions don’t last.

Acting from a place of extreme emotion, therefore, is generally counter-productive.

One way to ground yourself and bring your emotions back to the moment is by reminding yourself of the big picture:

After all, you’re probably not going to die from any of this.

It might help to say it over and over again whenever you feel the anxiety being to come on: I am not going to die from this. I am not going to die from this. I am not going to die from this.

That’s Ryan Holiday in The Obstacle Is the Way again.

Evolution has fine-tuned your response systems to overreact to existential threats. Most contemporary situations don’t call for this type of response, even though your body will kick into that gear at the slightest provocation, like speaking in public or losing your job.

(Of course, if you’re actually in a life-or-death situation, like a natural disaster or accident, repeating I am not going to die from this in your head might simply be positive thinking.)

Use Mantras to Defeat the Fear Moment

Don't Lose Your Head: Airline Pilot Mantras

Photo Credit: nicolacassa via Compfight cc

Are there proven mental hacks to help keep your wits about you during a crisis?

Why, yes.

They’re called mantras.

In The Resilience Dividend: Being Strong in a World Where Things Go Wrong, Judith Rodin makes a case for using mantras to “get out of the basement” of reactive, fight-or-flight evolutionary psychology. The key is developing routines and mantras:

The routine circuits, in other words, are where you keep your preparedness, your knowledge of what to do in certain situations. You reach into the mind’s metaphorical toolbox and grab something that is already there. Dorn, for example, is a physician. When faced with a situation that looks like a cardiac arrest, he is able to cut his fear moment short. He reaches into his toolbox for a well-known, five-step protocol and follows the steps methodically, without deviation. This enables him to respond almost immediately, gets beyond fear and out of the basement. Aircraft pilots have a mantra—aviate, navigate, communicate—which keeps fear at bay when faced with a crisis situation in flight. Repeating the mantra gets them out of the basement and into the toolbox where they have access to a whole range of protocols and checklists they can follow to assess their situation and determine the best options for action.

“Am I going to die from this?” and “Do I need to freak out about this?” of course are forms of mantras.

In order to work, a mantra has to be short and memorable, like a checklist.

Maybe it’s as simple remembering to breathe and pause to assess your situation (“breathe & assess”). Maybe it’s more specific to your profession, like the well-known Apgar test administered to newborn infants.

Whatever the case, a prepared mantra that you can recite to yourself in a crisis can do wonders for your chances of successfully addressing the situation.


  1. Fight the urge to get angry. Anger leads to mistakes. Remember Waitzkin’s story of the woman crossing the street in The Art of Learning.
  2. Don’t shut down. Denying there’s a problem is about as bad as losing your head. Responding well to disruption requires self-awareness.
  3. Remember there’s always a countermove. The paradox of defiance and acceptance dictates that you recognize the gravity of your situation and simultaneously refuse to succumb to it. There’s always a way out.
  4. Ask yourself, “Do I need to freak out about this?” Probably not. 9 times out of 10, freaking out is only going to make things worse. You’ll still have to deal with the problem and then the freak-out on top of it.
  5. Remind yourself that you’re (probably) not going to die. Not going to die is good, right? Now start digging yourself out of that hole.
  6. Repeat a mantra to get yourself out of the basement. Airline pilots repeat “aviate, navigate, communicate” when they get in trouble. What’s your equivalent mantra?

Top image by Shinichi Higashi.

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