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How to stay calm in a crisis

If you live in Ontario, you were either startled by or jolted awake early this morning by an emergency message stating that there was an ‘incident’ at the Pickering nuclear reactor. I was awake, however I was really startled by the noise my cell phone made – I didn’t know where the alarm was coming from at first! I then read the message and was shocked. 

There are conscious and unconscious processes in the mind and body that immediately kick in when a fear pattern is triggered. If you're feeling the aftereffects of the message, or feeling stressed in general, I wanted to share my experience and tips that can help you feel better right away.


Here’s how to stay calm in a crisis (or the threat of a crisis):

Step 1: Recognize when a fear pattern is triggered. In my case, the cell phone alarm made me jump and I immediately read the message. Reading the words ‘nuclear incident’ created a lot of fear in me, and I felt my heart race, I became hyper-aware and my breathing became shallower. This is the fight/flight/freeze that the brain automatically activates to protect us from harm.


It’s been quite a weekend for those of us living in Ontario, as we’ve experienced record rainfall and were warned yesterday to be on the lookout for flooding and power outages. Receiving an emergency alert on top of the uncertainty created by a record-breaking storm can wreak havoc on our internal programming and nervous system.


Step 2. Assess the situation and release any fears or stories that are triggering you.  After reading the message, I managed to ‘catch myself’ and recognized that I was feeling fearful and startled. I immediately started to assess the level of danger that I was in:


1. I re-read the message carefully. It said that there was no imminent danger and that the alert was meant for people within a certain radius of the power plant. I do not live within that radius and in the absence of any additional information, I had to assume that I didn’t need to take immediate action.


2. I checked online and there was minimal information. The bulk of the information was by concerned residents on Twitter, so I checked the news online every 15 minutes or so.


3. I resolved not to make up stories in my head to scare myself. Left unchecked, the brain can – and will – come up with the worst-case scenario or conspiracy theories. Sometimes they’re true, but in the absence of information, these stories can keep us stuck in fight/flight/freeze, so we’re unable to plan or move forward to make ourselves feel better.


4. I made myself breakfast. During times of crisis or stress, it’s important to take care of all your needs. Dealing with stress when your body doesn’t have the nourishment it needs makes things worse. I incorporated mindfulness into preparing and eating my breakfast as another tool to help me be more relaxed and calm.


Taking these steps engages the executive function in your brain, so that you’re able to plan and make decisions using all parts of your powerful brain. Engaging your executive function helps you shift out of a fear pattern and prevents you from dwelling on stories that are not helping you.


Step 3: Rebuild your day. Within about an hour, news organizations were reporting that government officials released a brief statement saying that the alert was an error. My cellphone then scared the crap out of me again with a second alarm/alert stating that the first alert had been a mistake.


Being startled by the loud noise of the second alert triggered the automatic fight/flight/freeze for a second time. I jumped, but then I read the message confirming that the initial alarm was an error. I then spent a couple of minutes focusing on slowing down and deepening my breath and doing a mental body scan to check that I wasn’t holding nervousness or anxiety in my body. I plan on incorporating a little extra self-care into my day to ensure that I’m not carrying any stress relating to this incident with me.


If you want to rebuild your day, you can add in self-care that will relax and soothe your mind, body and spirit. You could do a little exercise or yoga to ensure you’re not holding additional physical tension in your body. You could practice 5 minutes of mindfulness or deep breathing to calm your nervous system. If you were jolted out of a deep sleep, consider taking a nap this afternoon, or going to bed a little earlier, so that you get the rest you need.


I’d recommend taking a little break from your device or TV, as external input has a big impact on the nervous system. You can stay informed of what’s happening but try and put your attention on something a little lighter, read a favourite book or listen to a positive podcast.


According to the latest news, the emergency alert was triggered by a training exercise and the message was not supposed to be sent to the public. I’m sure there will be more to come however this is the information that we have right now.


It’s hard not to feel outraged and upset when people we depend on make a mistake or let us down. There are calls for an investigation and I believe that the people responsible should be held accountable and steps should be taken to prevent a similar occurrence from happening again. However, when there’s a situation that we can’t control, taking the steps outlined above will help you control your reaction to a crisis and help you feel less stressed. Often in life we don’t have all the information or answers; however, we can always control our own actions and responses to an unpleasant event.


What do you do to calm down after a shock or stressful event? Please let me know in the comments. If you need help in dealing with stress or change, contact me or check out the Change Without Pain online course. 

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