push the panic button

panic button

an alarm button for use in an emergency, as to summon help.
push/hit/press the panic button, Informal. to give way to panic in a distressing situation.

allegedly first used in reference to emergency bell systems on World War II bombers such as the B-17 and B-24

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World English Dictionary
panic button
1.  a button or switch that operates any of various safety devices, for use in an emergency
2.  informal hit the panic button, press the panic button to react to a situation by demanding emergency action; become excited; panic

Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition
2009 © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
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American Heritage
Idioms & Phrases

push the panic button

Also, press the panic button. Overreact to a situation, as in Don't worry; Jane is always pushing the panic button, but I'm sure the baby's fine. This term originated during World War II, when certain bombers had a bell-warning system so that the crew could bail out if the plane was severely hit. Occasionally a pilot would push the button in error, when there was only minor damage, causing the crew to bail out unnecessarily. By 1950 the expression had been transferred to other kinds of overreaction.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer.
Copyright © 1997. Published by Houghton Mifflin.
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