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Ph.D., CSP, CDR, US Navy Ret.,
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How to Stay Calm and Focused During a Crisis

Everyone has a natural response to the stress caused by a crisis. Some people seem to be easily overwhelmed, while others seem to become even more focused. While research indicates that our responses to stress is partly innate, we also know that we can learn better techniques to react during moments of high stress or in a crisis.

Regardless of how well people around us currently handle stress, we can become more effective with practice, tools, and awareness.

When faced with a crisis, challenge, or change, it is easy to become distracted by ancillary issues that only serve to confuse us. In an emergent situation, we need to focus on the issues that are the most critical or threatening. It helpful to dissect and separate the key issues so they can be addressed appropriately.

Identify the actual problem. What, exactly, is wrong? It might be obvious, but sometimes it is not. Before we start to implement contingency plans, make sure they are warranted.
Let us say you get a phone call that your friend’s son was in an automobile accident. Your natural response is to drop everything and rush over to the local hospital. Your response is commendable as you act to quickly support your friend. Then you find out that their son’s ‘accident” was that he ran into a mailbox. The only injury was to today’s batch of mail. The son and the vehicle are both fine. But when we hear about an accident, we assume a dire situation. Asking a few clarifying questions to identify the actual problem helps us formulate the right response. We might find there really is not an issue. Sometimes, we inflate the issue and cause drama when no drama is warranted.

Determine what you can do to solve to problem or mitigate the negative impacts. Now that you know the challenge you are facing, seek a variety of solutions. Ask yourself what you can do to help. Do you have the skill set, resources, or ability to help? Is it appropriate for you to offer assistance?

What about the situation are you able to fix? What would be a successful outcome if you got involved? It is one thing to know you have a problem. It is another to know where you want to end up. You cannot create a solution if you are not clear on what you are trying to accomplish.

Do not waste energy on needless worry. We have to understand the consequences of both the best-case scenario and the worst-case scenario. Once those are identified, we advise people not to dwell on either one. The reality will be somewhere in the middle. If you have planned for both, you are covered.
Rather than ruminating on all the negative possibilities – and being distracted by the worry – focus your attention on the solutions. What can you do to create the right outcome? When your mind is busy generating solutions, it cannot be worried. You can save yourself a lot of negative emotion by keeping your attention on finding a way out of the situation.

Stay focused on the present. Avoid projecting into the future. This is how we create worry and anxiety. If you find your mind wandering to negative places that are unlikely to occur, bring yourself back to the present. Focus on what needs to happen right now and then plan for the next series of steps.

Breathe. Relaxed breathing leads to calm thinking. Sufficient oxygen is important. Lack of oxygen causes hyperventilating and increases our tendency to panic. Some people unconsciously delay or stop breathing when they get bad news. Many people hold their breath when they are stressed. Try inhaling for 4 seconds, holding the breath for 4 seconds, and breathing out for 4 seconds for sufficient and regular air flow.

Relax your body. Stress releases chemicals that cause your muscles to tense. Tension headaches and increased body aches are a physiological response to increased stress during a crisis. You can counteract this tension by deliberately tensing then relaxing areas of your body. Start by tensing and then relaxing your shoulders. Stretch your arms and legs. Move your toes. Massage your fingers. Learn what a relaxed body feels like. It will be easier to achieve when you are experiencing stress.

Stay busy. It is easy to dwell on negativity when you have a lot of free time. During COVID, many people suddenly had more free time, and for some people, this caused them to spiral into depression as they focused on all kinds of negative possibilities of what could happen. When we are both physically and mentally busy, it is easier to stay focused on what is important. Keep working on finding solutions. If there is nothing more you can do, avoid just sitting around and worrying. Find an activity to keep your mind occupied.

Be grateful. Studies show actively practicing gratitude lowers cortisol levels by over 20%. Before you get overly anxious during a crisis, make a quick gratitude list.
“I am grateful that we have…”
“I am grateful that I know how to …”
“I am grateful for the people around me who can…”
Regardless of the current crisis or challenge, you have never been better prepared to deal with it than you are right now. You have experience, knowledge, and skills. You have resources. You have friends, co-workers, and acquaintances who will help.

Categorize your emotions. You are not worried, you are thoughtful. You are not panicked, you are motivated. You are not losing your cool, you are quickly directing people to act. It sounds trivial, but it makes a significant difference.

Responses to stressful situations are mostly learned behaviors. You can learn to think and behave in a more productive way during a crisis.

Some people lament that life is just one crisis after another. We are more optimistic than that, but we do recognize that for some people, working through a crisis is all-consuming, and that they feel that they are constant jumping from the frying pan into the fire and back to the frying pan. It might not be quite that bad, but life is full of challenges. How we deal with them is up to us.


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