When we are faced with a traumatic event or an emergency, our body goes into high-alert and prepares to us to deal with the threat by releasing big doses of adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol. Among other things, these chemicals make our heart beat faster and speed up our breathing. Cortisol also goes to the brain, where it causes the processes of our pre-frontal cortex to slow down.
The pre-frontal cortex is the area of our brain mostly responsible for logical thinking, planning, decision-making, and other executive functions. In other words, when stress chemicals reach our brain, they partially disable the rational captain of the ship and our amygdala (the source of our emotional reactions) takes over the controls.
Because we are hardwired to react emotionally and instinctively during an emergency (rather than logically and thoughtfully), we need to actively coach ourselves to calm down and focus during highly stressful events.
Your first job in an emergency is to try to calm yourself down. You will not be able to perform many of the tasks necessary for survival effectively (e.g., calling emergency services, providing first aid, identifying what is most important to do next) if you are panicking. Here are some ways you can help yourself calm down.
- Stand still: Unless you need to run for your life or there are urgent safety issues for you or others, stop. Stand still for a moment while you practice one of the other techniques on this list.
- Slow your breathing with the 3-3-3 technique: Breathe in very slowly to the count of three, hold for three, release slowly for three. Repeat this sequence several times while saying the word “calm” to yourself as you exhale. Breathing rapidly and shallowly (as we often do in a high-stress situation) can make us feel dizzy, confused, and panicky. Slowing down your breathing sends the message to your body and brain that it’s no longer necessary to increase the intensity of your fight-or-flight reaction, and is one of the most effective ways to help yourself calm down.
- Count to ten: Counting slowly to ten is another way to help slow your breathing and heart rate and calm yourself down.
- Focus on a calming scene: Close your eyes for a moment and focus on something you find calming (e.g., your childhood bedroom, a favorite beach, etc.) Hold that image in mind while you slowly count to three. Alternatively, try imagining a bubble of safe space surrounding you.
- Ground yourself by focusing on your senses: As you slow your breathing, ground yourself in the moment by focusing on what you can feel (e.g., your feet touching the ground, your clothing against your skin), what you can hear (e.g., traffic, wind in the trees), and what you can smell.
- Slow your heart rate: Slowing your breathing will also slow your heart rate, but those who have previously practiced mindfulness may also be able to cue into their heart rate and intentionally slow it down.
- Tense up and release: Squeeze/tense up all the muscles in your body at the same time and then release them three times in quick succession. (Caveat: Don’t try this one unless you’ve previously practiced progressive muscle relaxation and are confident you won’t hurt yourself.)
- Remember others are watching you: Remembering that others are watching how you’re reacting and focusing on other people’s needs can sometimes take the focus off your own panic and help you stay calm. Your sense of calm will then help others stay calmer.
Your second task is to focus on identifying what is most important to do next. What needs doing straight away?
- Do you need to get yourself or others to safety?
- Do you need to call emergency services?
- Does anyone need first aid?
It is impossible to predict how you will react in any given crisis or emergency situation. You can, however, do one thing to increase the chances that you’ll maintain composure instead of becoming overwhelmed. That thing is practice before you find yourself in a crisis or emergency situation.
What you practice can become second nature, which is why skills related to controlling your breathing and mindfulness can help you in emergency situations where you often act instinctively. You can’t practice and prepare for every emergency event, of course. But you can practice for predictable emergencies, as well as practice techniques that can help you calm yourself in a crisis.
Practice for predictable emergencies
Some emergency situations are more likely to occur than others. For example, if you have asthma or allergies that may cause anaphylactic reactions you can practice (and help children practice) finding your inhaler or EpiPen, calling emergency services, and strategies to help you stay calm when breathing is difficult. You and all your loved ones should also know what sort of information emergency services will ask for you if you ever have to call.
Practicing for these sorts of predictable emergencies is essential. For example, you should always know how to call emergency services where you live (if they exist), where necessary emergency items are located, and where building exits are where you live and work. It’s always a good idea to do first aid training, too. Having a feeling of knowing what to do in a crisis gives a sense of control and direction that is very calming and grounding.
Practice calming techniques
Many of the techniques that will most help you during an emergency need to be regularly rehearsed before you can hope to use them effectively in a crisis. When you practice slow, deep breathing, how to focus and pay attention through mindfulness, and how to discern and slow down your heartbeat, these skills can really help you in an emergency. If you haven’t regularly practiced them beforehand, however, you are much less likely to be able to use them effectively under extreme pressure.
The CALM App is a good resource that can help you practice deep breathing, mindfulness meditations, visualizations and other calming techniques. You may also want to check out other apps that can help you practice these sorts of techniques such as AURA and HEADSPACE.
Remember, it’s impossible to accurately predict how we’ll react during any given emergency. Even seasoned professionals (firefighters, nurses, and paramedics) sometimes get overwhelmed and panic during a crisis. However, this is yet another area where practice may not make perfect, but it does give you a better chance of staying calm in a crisis and focusing on what you need to do to help yourself and others.