It began a few weeks ago while working with clients as the stock market was crashing and the coronavirus was sweeping the world. Many of my clients were on the edge of their seats, eyes darting about as if expecting a monster to jump out from nowhere and attack them.
We are wired to look for danger and an approaching attack; however, this monster is invisible.
Last week, I noticed there were three primary reactions to this crisis. In the first camp were those who were aware, stayed calm and took action to take precautions. The second camp were those who chose to stay in denial about a virus that could be potentially lethal. And finally, and apparently in a large majority, were those who began to panic and take rash actions like cleaning out the market of all the toilet paper and hand sanitizers, leaving the shelves empty.
Panic creates more panic. Staying calm, centered and grounded can create more calm.
One client asked me with fear in his voice, “What are we going to do?” I took in a deep breath while I looked into his fearful eyes. Here is what I told him. First, take a long, deep breath, and when you exhale, allow the tension in your body to leave and relax. I asked him to breathe slowly with me, and on each exhale, I reminded him to calm his mind down and pay attention to his breath. In one minute, we had taken five breaths together and he was noticeably calmer. All it took was a one-minute breathing session to calm him down. Now that he was calmer, I felt I could talk to him about staying centered and grounded. Panic creates more panic. Staying calm, centered and grounded can create more calm. It is a choice how we are going to react to a crisis, and our choices can be both powerful and contagious, just like the virus.
Mindfulness is about many things, but one is managing your emotions.
Noticing what you are feeling but not immediately acting on those emotions is important, as it can keep you from making rash actions, like those who hoarded toilet paper; they were reacting from their panic and acted irrationally. They felt threatened and went immediately into survival mode, not thinking about their neighbor. When we feel threatened, we experience an amygdala hijack where there is a chemical reaction in the brain that shuts down accessing the logical, reasoning function part of the brain. And for good reason. If a tiger walks into the room, we are supposed to take action instead of sitting around discussing what we are going to do about the tiger.
I explained this to my client, who is at the C-suite level of his organization. I impressed upon him the importance of adopting a mindfulness practice and how it can bring awareness to responding automatically, giving him a moment to stop and choose a different response. By developing this practice, by remaining calm, he will make better decisions and can guide others in his organization to remain calm, and, like a cascading waterfall, the entire organization can stay calm and productive and assess problems that arise in a rational and logical manner.
In addition to remaining calm and breaking automatic behavioral patterns, a mindfulness practice can boost your immune system.
Stress and panic lower immunity, and you can become more susceptible to any virus. With the coronavirus, all of us have been advised about avoiding touching our faces with unwashed hands. Touching our faces is an automatic impulse. Mindfulness brings awareness to impulses and creates space for you to not act on those impulses. Using your breath, you can sustain the need to act and instead observe, giving space to move past the impulse.
We are also advised to isolate ourselves in various ways, through staying at home and/or keeping our distance from another person. Through mindfulness, we can stay connected. There are many online meditation communities where you can meditate with others and receive a quick acknowledgment from someone saying, “Thanks for meditating with me.” Instead of a phone call, use Zoom, Skype or FaceTime to connect and share a three-minute breathing exercise together, then share how you feel afterward. In this way, you are staying calm and connected.
Other benefits to a mindfulness practice in addition to remaining calm in a crisis are:
• Increased focus
• Increased clarity
• Increased creativity (being creative helps with depression and can lead to unthought-of-before solutions to grave situations)
• Improved communication
• Lower stress
• Improved decision-making
• Greater self-awareness of your triggers
Throughout the day, return to a one-minute breathing exercise to stop racing thoughts and to ground and center yourself. During times of uncertainty and facing unknowns, each of us can be a leader for others in remaining calm during this pandemic.
This article originally appeared on Forbes and is featured here with author permission.