A Story and 5 Lessons From Being Scared To Death in A Crowded Elevator

It was at Color Purple in New York’s lower east side.

It was with a personal friend, potential investors and an antarctic explorer. Half business half pleasure.

It was about 1am, and we had been out at several places prior. It began as five of us, and quickly turned to ten.

We were half boys half girls tearing up NYC. Color Purple’s the place to go one of the girls said, and it was nearby.

We were walking around the Bowery figuring out what to do next and a friend had mentioned the spot to me before.

We let the NY ‘it’ girl guide us. She was young, ambitious and aspiring. Everything that stands for NY and everything I love about the culture.

We walk in and it’s not crowded, it’s Monday at 1:30ish.

The elevator opens and everyone excitedly piled in. I knew right then it was a bad idea and that I should wait.

I know New York elevators can be especially sensitive. I know this because I lived in a NY building that had an ultra sensitive elevator.

Four people was fine, five and it would literally break and require repair.

Yes, seems like NY has bad elevators but it’s just one of those things that makes New York what it is with so many old buildings that used to be warehouses, hotels etc.

It’s decision time, everyone piles in and I say “I’ll take the next one”.

They howl at me like high school in a fun way.

I think about it for a split second and reluctantly say fine.

We’re piled in like sardines, body to body. The elevator isn’t that large.

Pissed at myself for not having the conviction to follow my intuition there. Ah peer pressure from potential investors telling you to pile in.

We go in and press the top floor. We’re looking forward to Color Purple’s roof which has a great view.

The elevator begins to go up and immediately does what I was looking for it not to though actually knew it would.

Bang to a screeching halt. It sunk down a floor and wouldn’t move.

One yelled “it’s falling”.

A few of us begin to panic. One of the girls begins pressing all the buttons. “Stop”, I say. “Stay calm and let’s see what happens.”

I go into as deep and intuitive and fearless a meditation as I can muster. I’ve been claustrophic in the past but now know how to manage fear and I get into life/death mode immediately.

Even in a non life threatening but pretty panic enticing situation like that, I act as though I’m facing death, accept it’s a possibility and get into a calm state to respond as intuitively as I can.

This sounds extreme but a crowded elevator as a former claustrophobe kicks the survival brain into high gear.

It was a conscious response to create context to manage fear. I’ve read this is somewhat what Navy Seals do where they actually get into a deeper state of flow that leads to high performance state of high intuitive decision making.

I like getting acquainted with death to manage the survival brain to desensitize from fear responses.

At war, of course, it’s forced on the person to where it’s all around you so re-contextualizing and re-framing becomes forced and you adapt.

I needed to force this adaption.

The point is, it’s the same emotional, physiological and psychological responses you’re having in the first world when reacting to any situation where the mind perceives death, and in my case as a former claustrophobe, in a big elevator packed like sardines, it certainly was that.

Here are five lessons learned from the situation

1. Re-Frame Death And Put It In The Right Context

Yes I was once that claustrophobic so I took extreme measures to manage my fears. One of my worst ‘fears’ has been dying in a claustrophic situation.

My survival brain was responding to “I hope I don’t die here”.

I detached from that and acknowledged that dying, leaving consciousness, actually isn’t a bad experience if one embraces it.

Heck it can be turned into glory and looked forward to as many (often the crazy ones we hear about) people have.

Anyway, the point is when you feel threatened or in a life/death situation, to re-frame death and alleviate the fearful response of the survival mind which is what I did first.

2. Always Have The Conviction To Go Against The Herd and Follow Your Intuition

This is what’s most disappointing about this.

I literally knew the elevator was going to break and knew it was a bad idea to go but I wasn’t willing to dissent.

Going against the grain and dissenting is very hard. This was well established in Stanley Milgram’s experiments where he wondered how employees of the holocaust didn’t revolt after even being asked to do horrifying acts.

He learned whether it’s a social authority or an authority figure, people will go a very long way and obey commands.

3. Stay Calm and Calm Others Down

I continually told people to calm down. One of the girls was hitting buttons over and over and I told her to calm down and stop hitting buttons.

She almost began crying and I said it will be okay.

She didn’t really calm down so it lead to step four.

4. If You Can’t Calm Others Down, Take Charge

People will acknowledge a leader if you act the part.

People were quite panicked. It was almost 2 in the morning, we were packed in like sardines and most were drinking all night.

Finally, my friend hit the emergency button and reached the hotel staff to send for help.

They answered which created a light of hope. If they hadn’t, I believe we would have panicked more.

After about the longest 10 minutes of many of our lives, the elevator started struggling up floor by floor, we achingly watched each number light up.

It was a race to the absolute top floor of the building, and I think it was 15 levels.

We finally arrived and the door opened and I’d never been so excited to break out of an elevator in my life.

Thanks for reading. Please recommend the piece if you enjoyed it and consider signing up below to see my screenplay Choose to Become. It’s my rendition of Training Day.