How to Stay Calm in the Face of Death, According to an ER Doctor

doctor giving thumbs up

Although you might feel like you're going to die if that bartender doesn't get you a beer right now, this isn't exactly a dire situation. What is, however, is if you're faced with a real life or death scenario. In these cases, most people panic, and not hyperbolically. 

That's why we spoke to seasoned ER guru Dr. Ryan Stanton (and spokesperson for the American College of Emergency Physicians), who faces life or death situations every single day he goes to work. He'll teach you how to keep cool if you ever find yourself in such a predicament.

CPR dummy
Flickr/Staff Sgt. Sarah Martinez/NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan

Prepare for any situation

You can't possibly prepare yourself for all circumstances, since we'd all be pretty screwed if some Leftovers-type stuff went down, but first aid training goes a long, long way. Hit up your local fire department, American Red Cross, or hospital for a basic first aid class, which will help you help others when it matters most. You'll learn how to give non-creepy, hands-only, live-saving CPR that doesn't require you to basically tongue kiss a stranger, plus super useful skills like what to do when someone's choking, and how to stop major bleeding. And you can also learn how to shock someone's heart using an AED machine if they go into cardiac arrest.

Know you don't always have to do something

Even if you're prepared, know your limitations, because sometimes doing very little is the best possible thing. Let's say you come across a car wreck, and someone is badly injured. As Dr. Stanton explains, just being there is good enough: "Sometimes the best thing you can do is call 911 and talk to the person," he said. "Give them comfort." If the person in the crash is already bleeding badly, any stress on top of that will make them "more likely to have complications."

And to further hammer home the point that real life is not like being in a hospital drama on TV, you don't have to be a hero and save everyone. So if you see someone having a seizure, outside of "keeping [the person's] airway open," (a technique you learn in basic first aid!), your job is to sit there and wait for EMS to arrive. "People feel like they have to do something," Dr. Stanton said. "They try to shove stuff in the person's mouth to keep them from breaking teeth, or put their fingers in their mouth to keep them from swallowing their tongue. And then you just end up with two people hurt instead of one."

Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize

When someone comes into the ER with a problem, Dr. Stanton asks himself the same question: "What's going to kill them first?" Probably that hospital food, says every comedian from the '80s. But if that person is not bleeding to death and is breathing fine, then Dr. S has bought himself enough time to figure out what to do next.

By way of example, let's go back to our imaginary person in a car crash: Dr. S says some newbie doctors can get distracted by the victim's nasty-looking sideways ankle and not realize that they're also not breathing. Prioritizing allows you to focus on what's critically important at the moment. You can only do one thing at a time.

panic button

Know that sometimes there are no solutions

Everyone knows they're supposed to calm down in a stressful situation, but it's not just about taking a few deep breaths (though you should also do that). "Panic has never fixed a problem," Dr. Stanton said. "Fixing a problem involves working through what you know -- if it's not part of what you know, find the people who know it." If someone else can't help, perhaps there are no solutions whatsoever to the super stressful, life-threatening situation you find yourself in. "[Sometimes] you can't change the current situation," he said. "All you can [affect] is what's going to happen now and moving forward. Stay calm and think about what you can do [next]."

Gain confidence through education, experience

ER doctors stay calm while saving lives everyday, and they're able to keep cool by relying on a combination of experience and education. Now, outside of being that guy in Catch Me If You Can and impersonating a doctor to gain some life-saving experience, first aid training will suffice.

Dr. Stanton put said experience to work one Sunday outside of the ER, when someone passed out behind him in church. While other people were freaking out, Dr. Stanton followed his own advice and everything turned out fine.

Other, non-passed out churchgoers were concerned that the unconscious person didn't have a strong pulse, and that it was imperative to check their sugar. But Dr. S knew the best move in this situation -- make sure the victim was breathing and stay there until EMS arrived. And to stay calm. In a hospital, "if the doctor is calm and relaxed, the whole [ER] is calm and relaxed and everyone does their job." Be the calm one in any life-threatening situation you encounter, and you'll do just fine.

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Lee Breslouer is a senior writer at Thrillist and thinks we all need to calm down. Follow him to soothing tweets at: @LeeBreslouer.