The world is facing an unprecedented crisis and people are panicked. Learning to stay calm is a good first step to survive these challenges. But ultimately you want to bounce back and thrive amidst the chaos. Here’s how.
I recently gave a special online seminar on how to find resilience in hard times – what each of us can do right now to be as productive and as happy as possible as the world faces a situation none of us have ever experienced. I took the group through a mental focusing exercise that I use with many of my clients to reduce stress and function optimally, regardless of external circumstances.
And I also offered my online participants several tips that are very easy to implement, take very little time, and can quickly and powerfully generate the sense of calm equilibrium and balanced perspective we all need right now. I’d like to share some of these tips with you.
It's All About Perspective
The root of the problem for many right now is a lack of perspective. We stress. We worry. We panic. And once we panic, the game is nearly over.
In a recent interview, Dr. Martin Zand, a senior physician at the University of Rochester Medical Center, was asked how he stayed calm as he tried to coordinate a massive operation to help Coronavirus patients. He responded simply that, “you have to remain calm in order to be effective and get things done. Panic is not going to help.”
And yet we do panic. Fight or flight is a natural reaction to stressful events. But it is rarely a helpful one.
It takes effort to not only remain calm, but to stand back from the fray and look at a stressful situation with a more reasoned, big-picture perspective. Imagine if, instead of buying a ten-year supply of toilet paper, everyone had taken a moment to calmly determine what they really need during a pandemic, and which items are or are not likely to appear through the regular supply chain.
Perspective is everything. When you’re standing in the middle of a thunderstorm, the sun doesn’t exist. All you can see and hear and feel is the heavy rain and the grey clouds and the thunder and the lightning. Yet if you were to fly up above the clouds in an airplane, the sky would still be blue and the sun would still be shining.
Your perspective will determine what you see and how well you respond. And that’s not just true for your altitude during thunderstorms – it's just as true during this pandemic.
In recent articles, I've shared focusing exercises and other techniques you can use to gain a sense of calm and perspective. One of those techniques is to deliberately cultivate a sense of gratitude, which research shows can keep you happier and calmer, and help ward off anxiety and depression.
My gratitude article, which you can access here, gives detailed tips. But in short, if you simply write down five things every day for which you are grateful, you’ll find yourself seeing the world and your challenges differently in short order.
You can be grateful for literally anything, from family to the air you breathe to ice cream. Right now, I’m taking a few minutes each day to appreciate these flowers right outside my front door.
Taking the time to notice them gives me a daily reminder that there continues to be beauty in the world no matter what else is going on. You can choose to focus on flowers or any object of beauty, or whatever people or things in your life make you more grateful.
Another helpful technique, briefly discussed in a previous article, and which can help you quickly tame those stressful thoughts is to ask yourself questions. When you start to worry, stop and ask yourself if the thought you’re having is helping you.
Most of the time the answer will be no. If you are worrying about a potential future event, or stressing about a current event, chances are pretty good that all your stress and worry isn’t moving the ball forward.
Asking yourself how or whether your thoughts are helping you will stop those harmful thoughts in their tracks. Next ask yourself what is one thing you can do right now – no matter how small - that can help improve the situation.
Even if your action is tiny, you will be doing something constructive, which will inspire more constructive steps - and that's a much more productive and mentally stable place to be than simply letting your worrying thoughts continue to bounce around inside your head.
You Even Get to Choose Your Own Perspective
Just as important as taking steps to maintain a healthy perspective is first understanding that you get to choose your own perspective.
So you might be thinking that choosing your own perspective is fine for when times are good. But in these times of unprecedented stress, we can’t just be expected to rise above it all and choose whatever perspective we want. Right?
Victor Frankl, an eminent psychologist who founded the field of logotherapy, was a Holocaust survivor who spent several grueling years in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. He observed how fellow inmates responded to the unspeakable challenges they faced. Frankl wrote:
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Victor Frankl was writing about choosing your own attitude in Auschwitz. Let that sink in.
He wasn’t talking about a potential toilet paper shortage. Or having to stay in your home and connect to others via Zoom. Or even confronting a pandemic. He was talking about choosing your own attitude in the midst of a genocide.
Thankfully, whatever our challenges, they are not the challenges that Victor Frankl observed and encountered. We too, have the option to choose our own attitude, our own perspective.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy – but it is possible. Constantly reminding yourself that you have the power to choose will help you not only to reduce your stress levels, but to affirmatively cultivate the kind of resilience that will enable you to thrive and emerge stronger on the other side of this pandemic.
How do you choose your attitude? One way to start is to simply decide which attitudes and which perspectives will best serve you right now.
This isn’t about positive thinking. This isn’t about ignoring the very real challenges in front of you. Victor Frankl wasn’t thinking positively. He knew he was in Auschwitz. He was fully aware of the daily struggle for existence. But he understood that even there, in the middle of a death camp, his power to choose his own attitude was internal and so it could never be taken away from him by an external force. And so it is for you too.
In addition to deliberately choosing your own attitude, taking affirmative steps to reach out to those around you will give you a perspective beyond yourself and your own challenges, and give you a feeling of agency – a sense that you are doing something helpful to others and not just worrying.
If you are in a position to give charity to organizations that are helping people through this pandemic, that is a great way to reach out. But even if the last few weeks have left you financially challenged, there are many affirmative steps you can take that cost no money at all.
Some are volunteering to take food and supplies to the elderly who cannot leave their homes. Others are offering skills or services they can provide over the internet to those who need them.
Even very small gestures can make a big difference. In addition to donating to organizations and offering my services to those who need them, I am contacting two people each day to check in on them and ask how they are doing. Friends, family members, acquaintances, people from high school I haven’t spoken to in years. In almost every case, they have been grateful that someone reached out with a caring attitude.
So now it’s your turn.
It’s easy to be stressed right now but it’s not going to help you. Instead, decide which perspective will best serve you over the coming weeks and months. Determine which attitudes will give you the most strength to meet your challenges. Choose a few of the suggestions in this article and start moving forward.