Some people are naturally good at keeping calm in the midst of a crisis or during high intensity situations. Others freeze, flea or react in negative ways that intensify the stress and drama of the situation.
As a hospital and hospice chaplain, I started out with a bit of natural ability, but then I learned strategies and techniques that make this calmness a conscious and predictable response.
It is much easier to stay centered and non-reactive when one faces a crisis in a professional role. It is considerably harder, to respond this way when one is personally involved in the intensity. But, it is not impossible.
This article will outline strategies and skills to improve your ability to respond calmly in times of stress and crisis that affect you personally.
As a professional whether as a chaplain, doctor, nurse, social worker or crisis counselor, you are prepared to deal with people in crisis and you expect it to happen. You are typically not part of the situation.
As a family member, friend, co-worker or colleague, you are part of what is happening and therefore it directly affects you and your future. Clergy face a unique role in which they are both in a professional role and personally involved in people’s lives and the life of the congregation they serve.
All of the strategies I will outline are designed to help you consciously detach from the intensity and outcomes of a situation. This does not mean these techniques will make you cold, distant or uncompassionate.
Ironically when you are able to become fully present to all that is going on for yourself and for others, you become both highly compassionate and able to make conscious and productive choices about your own responses in the moment.
If you tend to respond calmly and efficiently by detaching from intense situations, these techniques could help you to become more fully present, and therefore more compassionate toward yourself and others in that moment and in the future. All of these skills take practice. I will name each skill, then list ways to practice them.
While an intense situation is taking place:
1) Pay attention to details. Notice how others are responding.
• Before you respond, take a deep breath or say a quick prayer, then name to yourself three details you see in the people around you. What are their physical, emotional and behavioral reactions? Does a person clench his or her fists, grimace, yell profanities, become completely silent and turn pale or start blaming others?
• As you are responding, keep noticing and naming details about the other people present. Try to list items in at least three categories: physical, emotional and behavioral. You might even notice some spiritual responses.
• Aim to pay more attention to noticing people and their responses rather than to physical details about the scene. Paying attention to details and objects in the scene comes more naturally to some people, and it does have value. But if you want to work on being both emotionally calm and compassionate, challenge yourself to focus on details related the people who are present including yourself.
2) Pay attention to details about yourself. Notice your own physical, emotional and behavioral responses. If your mind jumps to events or situations from your past, bring yourself back to the scene, but make a note of what came to mind and take time to reflect on it later.
• If your emotions are overwhelming, take deep breaths and name the emotion or emotions.
• Notice and name to yourself your own physical responses such as tensing your jaw, crying, getting hot, sweaty palms…
• Notice what you are doing or what you have an urge to do.
• Make a note of the thoughts that go along with your behaviors. What are you saying to yourself? Is it, “I am an idiot!” “I can’t handle this!” “It’s all his (or her) fault!” Or do you say things like, “I can handle this.” “It’s going to be o.k.” “Take a deep breath.” “One step at a time.”
• Notice the tone and intensity of your own thoughts.
After the crisis or intense situation is over:
1) Reflect on your own responses.
• Talk to a close friend about what you noticed and experienced.
• Write in a journal about your own reactions and responses.
• Seek counseling to sort out your reactions in the current situation and how they might relate to issues or situations in your past.
2) Reflect on how you feel about other people’s responses.
• Did you judge or admire other people’s responses, or feel neutral?
• Did someone else’s response increase or decrease your own anxiety? Describe your reactions to other people’s responses.
• Did you respond to the initial crisis or to other people’s responses to that crisis?
3) Think about which of your reactions and responses were helpful and which you might have liked to change.
• List all of your physical, behavioral and emotional responses. Put an X next to the ones that happened automatically. Put a check mark next to the ones you could control if you chose to.
• Look at all of your X’s. Reflect on why you did not have control over each of these responses. List all the factors that were involved in limiting your control. For example: Were you under a lot of stress already? Did you get enough sleep last night? Did you eat healthy meals that day and drink healthful beverages? Did you take prescribed medications as directed? Did this remind you of a stressful or traumatic situation from the past? Etc.
After doing this, can any of your Xs be changed to check marks, meaning even though it seemed automatic at the time, you had some choice over that response.
• Look at all of your check marks. Is there one you really wish you could change? Set a goal. How might you reach this goal in the future?
• Follow up on each of the limiting factors. Is it realistic to change these? Can you take better care of yourself? Would it be useful to seek help from a doctor, counselor, friend, family member or support group? Are you willing to make personal changes? Why or why not?