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The word “crisis” can conjure up images of natural disasters as well as bloody violent rampages by deranged shooters.

Your definition of a “crisis” will be a very significant factor in how you react to one. Indeed, the way you think about a crisis may even determine your very ability to survive. Within your mind lies the key to meeting and overcoming a crisis.

DANGER—OPPORTUNITY

The Chinese word for crisis consists of two ideograms: “danger” and “opportunity.” Most of us recognize the danger in a crisis but few recognize the opportunity. While the danger is often quite apparent, the opportunity is more subtle, and yet, it can be a determining factor in your ability to overcome the crisis.

The opportunity to be found in the crisis lies in whether you utilize your mind to control your emotions, behaviors and destiny. If used correctly, your mind will allow you to emerge from the crisis a stronger and emotionally healthier person. If used incorrectly, your mind can be your worst enemy. It can do even more damage than the crisis itself.

SIMPLE PHYSIOLOGY

When your mind perceives danger, your sympathetic nervous system is activated. With its activation, a series of physiological changes are set in motion. The greater the threat of danger, the faster and stronger the changes will be.

These changes take place automatically, without conscious effort on your part, as your body springs into action preparing to meet the threat. Your blood pressure will increase as your heart beats faster. Blood flow to the arms and legs will decrease. You will be less sensitive to pain or injury. Your perception of time passing will change. Things may appear to be moving in slow motion. Under extreme stress, you may even develop tunnel vision, which means you’re literally unable to see what is going on around you as your visual field narrows upon the threat.

Your body is, in effect, preparing to either run away from the crisis or to face it. Thus, this physiological reaction of the autonomic nervous system is often referred to as the “fight or flight” mechanism. The crisis has triggered a physical change in your body that will better enable you to flee from the danger or to fight back against it.

Once the danger has been met or once it has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated. This reverses the fight or flight process. Your body then returns to normal. Your heart rate, blood pressure, etc., all return to what they were before the crisis occurred.

For a specific crisis or threat, the fight or flight mechanism can be a literal lifesaver. Unfortunately, today, many crises are prolonged, possibly lasting days, weeks or even longer. The parasympathetic nervous system cannot do its job because you are forced to stay in the fight or flight mode. What is designed to be a life-saving process can now become a threat to your health if your body is not able to experience the relief provided by the parasympathetic nervous system. That is the bad news: You cannot control the duration or severity of the crisis.

The good news is that you can control how you react to the crisis. There are simple mind-body exercises you can do to minimize the impact of any crisis you encounter. Indeed, these exercises provide an opportunity to overcome a crisis when you do not have the choice of fighting or fleeing.

IT’S ALL IN YOUR HEAD

The messages you give yourself will determine how well or how poorly you deal with the crisis. Negative messages yield negative results. Telling yourself repeatedly how bad a situation is, or how you can’t stand it, will only serve to make yourself worse. By contrast, telling yourself, “Yes, it’s bad, but I will cope with it.” or “I can, and I will, stand it.” will empower you.

Just as what we tell ourselves about the crisis can determine how we feel and behave, so, too, does what we tell ourselves about our own reaction. The fight or flight mechanism is the body’s natural way of preparing to meet a threat.

Some people, however, misread their own reactions. As they feel their heart racing, they interpret it as a negative, as something detrimental. They conclude that they are helplessly overwhelmed by fear because of what they are feeling. They do not realize that what they are feeling is a perfectly normal reaction. And, the more they think of themselves as helpless, the stronger their mind perceives the threat to be, and the stronger the fight or flight reaction becomes. In effect, their minds create a negative feedback loop. They become caught in a vicious cycle that feeds off itself. They are telling themselves how horrible it is to feel the way they feel, and this makes them feel even more helpless.

If they were to change the messages they are telling themselves, they would not only be a lot calmer but also better able to deal with the crisis. For example, consider the message, “My heart’s racing—I can’t cope,” versus, “My heart’s racing so that I will have the energy to cope.”

Rather than viewing the physical sensations of fight or flight as indications of a panic, learn to view it as your mind and body providing you with a better opportunity for successful action.

JUST SIT THERE

Ironically, sometimes the best cause of action in a crisis is to do nothing.

When dealing with a crisis, we often see people rushing aimlessly in a panic. It is very easy to get caught up in agitated driven behavior. Rushing around may give the illusion of accomplishing something, but it is generally counterproductive.

Before you rush off mindlessly, try this simple meditation technique: Sit quietly with your eyes closed. Put your attention on your feet. Think of them relaxing. Visualize the muscles relaxing. Then move onto your calves, thighs, hips, stomach and chest. Take your time, staying with each area until you feel the muscle group relaxing. Then, focus on your face, neck, shoulders and arms. Finally, spend a few minutes enjoying the feeling of relief provided by the relaxation. You are actually aiding the parasympathetic nervous system to facilitate relaxation and calmness. It will probably take several attempts before you reach your optimal level of relaxation. Don’t get discouraged. Success will come with practice. And don’t wait for a crisis to try this. Build up your ability to relax by practicing before a crisis occurs.

BREATHE

When facing a crisis or any challenge, try this simple breathing exercise: Sit or stand quietly where you won’t be disturbed for a few minutes. Exhale slowly and deeply. As you exhale, pull in your stomach muscles. Try to imagine someone squeezing your midsection to force all the air out of you. When you feel all the air has been expelled, blow out one more breath.

Now, inhale as slowly as possible through your nose and begin to expand your abdominal area. Visualize your lower abdominal area and your chest filling with oxygen, then, expand your rib cage and pull back your shoulders. When you are at your maximum capacity, hold the breath for about five seconds.

Slowly exhale through your mouth. Repeat the entire sequence three times. Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of this breathing exercise; it is very effective. It can relax or energize you, depending on what your body needs at that moment.

YOU’RE IN CONTROL

We cannot control external events. A crisis by its very nature is often an unforeseen and unpredictable situation that explodes upon us. But we need not be helpless in a crisis. We have the power and ability to decide how we respond to the crisis. Always remember that everything you need to survive is within you. Your mind is your own crisis-control center.

 

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the Spring 2014 print issue of American Survival Guide.