Your manager unexpectedly calls you into her office on Monday morning and, walking in, you notice someone from HR sitting in the corner. Is your mind clear, focused, alert — or is it more likely to start spinning with assumptions and worry?
According to survival psychologist Dr John Leach, 10 to 15 per cent of us handle a potential crisis in a calm and rational state of mind, pulling ourselves together quickly, developing priorities and making plans. Someone belonging to this group would silently construct a defence case in their employer’s office, in case their job were under threat. Most of us (about 75 per cent) will feel temporarily stunned and confused. We’ll sweat, feel sick and wait to hear why we’ve been summoned. Five to 12 per cent of people will experience extreme anxiety, even hysteria, bursting into tears and losing all rationality.The good news is that whichever category you think you belong to, you can improve how you deal with emotional emergencies and increase your odds of getting through unscathed.
When Ben Sherwood, author of 'The Survivors Club', began researching why some people bounce back from adversity while others are consumed by it, he assumed that survivors had a greater capacity for resilience, or more luck, than the rest of us. Instead, he found that when alarm bells go off, survivors call on the same emotional toolkit, regardless of the situation.
‘The same set of coping skills that someone uses to survive being left for dead on Mount Everest can help you overcome everyday emergencies,’ says Sherwood.
Beat the incredulity response
Faced with your boss and HR manager, you may find yourself standing stock still while you scan your mental filing system for any times you’ve messed up, sent inappropriate emails or missed a deadline. There’s every chance you’ll forget to sit down. Leach calls this the ‘incredulity response’. ‘The brain has limited storage, so when we face sudden threats, it pushes other things out in order to process them,’ he says. ‘If you’re anxious or worried, your decision-making skills temporarily disappear.’
We all experience this brain freeze to some degree when we encounter risk. What’s important is the speed at which we recover from it. Remembering to loosen up can release us from its grip. A skydiving instructor pats the top of a pupil’s head as a reminder to relax, as the shock a person feels when they jump for the first time often causes their mind to seize up. If they don’t snap out of it quickly, they may forget to open their parachute. A work crisis may not be a life-and-death situation, but if you freeze in your manager’s office, you’ll forget everything you know about confidence, assertion and reasonable argument — your parachute to bring you safely to ground.
After a shock, often someone will offer to make you a cup of tea or a stiff drink. It’s far better to make it yourself, as going through the motions prompts your brain to function to co-ordinate the movements. Once one area of the brain gets going, it kickstarts the others, allowing you to shake off the incredulity response. If there’s no time to make tea, running through the alphabet in your head should help.
Beware of the normalcy bias
The best survivors have a fluid understanding of what’s meant by ‘normal’. They can let go, adapt and embrace new realities. ‘We want things to be normal, as that’s what we understand,’ says Sherwood. This is what’s known as the normalcy bias, which is incredibly powerful and sometimes hazardous.
CCTV footage from the 1987 Kings Cross fire shows commuters buying tickets and travelling down escalators, despite smoke pouring out of the station. ‘They wanted a normal journey so tuned out anything that contradicted that notion, such as the fire,’ says Sherwood.
Falling prey to the normalcy bias is easy to do. Have you ever received a letter from the bank and not opened it because you didn’t want to see you’d reached your overdraft limit? Or ignored a partner’s flirting because you didn’t want to jeopardise your relationship?
Thousands have lost their jobs since the recession began, yet many people don’t search for new jobs or prepare for unemployment until they actually get fired. ‘They know that their company is making cuts, but don’t take precautionary action,’ says Sherwood.
According to Leach, situational awareness is a two-part process. You must first be alert to threats, then change your attitude and actions in case they affect you.
Some of us prefer not to think about unpleasant possibilities in case we somehow make them happen. Do you check under your seat for a life jacket when you board a flight? Or does part of you worry that thinking about something going wrong with the aircraft could tempt fate? ‘You don’t need to speculate about everything that could go wrong at any time,’ says Leach. ‘But it does help to pay attention to your environment.’
Tuning into your immediate physical environment is a great starting point for learning to embrace reality for what it is, not what you want it to be. This is your best weapon against the normalcy bias. Do something that encourages you to become alert to your surroundings. Take a different route to work to open your eyes, turn off your radio or iPod and absorb the distinctive character of where you are. You’ll soon become better at spotting things, including the subtleties and signs of people, which will help you to prepare for what’s coming.
Don’t minimise the problem
Many of us associate talking about our problems with guilt. Heart-wrenching stories remind us, every day, that people are going through worse situations than we are. Our own problems pale in comparison.
But if you don’t feel justified in feeling sad or hurt, you’ll deprive your problems of the attention they need and fail to deal with them properly. ‘It’s essential to go through a stage of self-pity to move on,’ says psychotherapist Sue Cowan-Jenssen, who works in the trauma unit at Watford General Hospital. ‘If you consistently under-react, you’re storing stresses up for an explosion later.’
‘Your struggle may not be as dramatic as another person’s, but if the stakes matter to you then contrasts are irrelevant,’ says Sherwood. ‘If you wake up with that knot in your stomach, it makes no difference how your situation measures on an imaginary Richter scale of suffering.’ Minimising your problems won’t help you get through your crisis.
Survivors have bad days, where they weep, wallow and spend the day in bed. What distinguishes them is that they can flick the switch from despair to action. They find a reason to be hopeful and a way to climb out. Think of things you want to experience and enjoy, and promise yourself that once you’ve got through this period, you’ll do at least one of them. You won’t feel like making detailed plans now, but having a notion of something you’d like to do encourages you to think about coming out the other side and carrying on with life.
You’re stronger than you think
The worst part of an emotional emergency occurs at the start, when you wonder, ‘Am I going to get through this? Am I going to feel like this for ever?’ You won’t, says Dr Richard Mollica of Harvard Medical School. ‘Many people mistakenly believe that while a knife wound will heal, an injury to the mind is impossible to repair,’ he says.
Mollica believes we’re all born with the ability to restore our physical and mental selves and that, even in the most hopeless human being, there is hope. Over the course of our lives, about 75 per cent of us will experience major life crises that are traumatic enough to trigger stress-related disorders. Yet only eight to 12 per cent develop these. We’re more resilient than we realise.
Not only does our physical strength rocket when adrenalin kicks in (in 1960, researchers in Chicago discovered that flexor power in our forearms increases by 31 per cent), we also have extraordinary resources of emotional strength.
Even when you think you’ve reached your limit, there’s a back-up generator ready to go. ‘It’s this strength that gets you out of bed, suited up in your armour and embarking on a day when you’re worried about an abusive boss, family feud or paying the rent,’ says Sherwood.