5 Steps that Will Take You from Chaos to Calm in an Hour
Two and a half months ago the coronavirus pandemic shut everything down. Life came to a screeching halt and drastically changed almost overnight. Our tightly knit community of family and friends, and most of the activities around which we organized our social lives -- church, our couples’ group, dinners at local restaurants, visits to each other's homes -- all suddenly stopped. A new routine emerged involving constant hand washing, sheltering in place, social distancing and stalking local stores for toilet paper.
The first couple of weeks I binged on news reports from all sources. I had to know everything: how many infected, where were the worst outbreaks, what was the country’s, my agency’s, my family’s plan? Mask or no mask? Wipe the groceries down or not? How do I keep my family safe? I was soon suffering from information overload, which led to a feeling of overwhelm, worry and anxiety. Next, I stopped consuming news altogether. I’d ask my husband for the high lights every morning and evening but focused my energy on work, exercise, keeping in touch with friends and family and sheltering safely in place with my kids and husband. I eventually read and watched news reports again, but in small doses and from reliable sources that cited reputable medical experts and scientists.
Similarly, when I was faced with the diagnosis of a life-threatening disease in 2016, I felt uncertainty, fear, and loss of control. I also binge researched and read everything I could find about breast cancer. I needed a cancer plan! (My dad taught me to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.) I needed information to piece together a solid, lifesaving, cancer-surviving plan. I skipped ahead to considering options and planning, though, leaving crucial in-between steps out. Taking these steps would have helped me feel calmer sooner and preserved my energy for the difficult road ahead.
When you get bad news or experience something that throws you off track, take the five steps below to restore a sense of calm. Set aside an hour to consider and complete each step. Taking these steps doesn’t guarantee that you’ll never feel worried or anxious again. But every time you notice that you’re going down the well-tread path of fight, flight or fright and return to these five steps, you will cut back on fretting and hand-wringing about worst case scenarios. Over time, you’ll notice that you’re not as easily taken off track or that you don’t stay off track as long as before. You’ll still feel your feelings, but the feelings won’t own you and you’ll have enough time after the triggering event to decide how you want to react, if at all.
1) Take a deep breath
So many times, over the past 45+ years, my mom has said to me “M’ija, respira!” or “Breathe!” It’s good advice, with science to back it up. According to an article from rightasrain.uwmedicine.org, “deep breathing…is a practice that enables more air to flow into your body and can help calm your nerves, reducing stress and anxiety.” This is Why Deep Breathing Makes You Feel so Chill by McKenna Princing, June 4, 2018 The next time you are anxious, tense or worried stop and breathe deeply. Take as many deep breaths as you need to restore a sense of calm before moving on to the next step.
2) Write Down Your Feelings
Ask yourself, “What am I feeling?” then write the good, the bad, the unspeakable down. “I feel scared, worried, helpless, angry, shocked, sad.” List all the feelings you’re experiencing. Then acknowledge and validate your feelings. Say something to yourself like, “It's normal to feel [insert feeling here] given the fact that [insert the situation]." Don’t rush through this step. Exercise self-compassion. Give yourself some grace. Remind yourself that you are doing the best you can with the resources you have. When you’re ready, go on to step 3.
3) Write Down Your Questions
Next, ask yourself, “What are my questions? What do I want or need to know?” Write down all the questions that come to mind. Every. Last. One. The goal of this step is to identify the universe of unknowns rattling around in your brain that often lead to either (premature) action or paralyzing fear. When I was diagnosed, I had a million questions. “What kind of breast cancer do I have? Has it spread? What happens if it has? What treatment is recommended for my cancer? How soon can I start? Will I lose my hair? Am I going to die?” DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP. Corral the unanswered questions and when there aren’t any more to write down move on. Don’t organize them into groups or look for answers online. That will only lead to speculation and more questions.
4) Consider Your Sources
Ask yourself, “Who will answer my questions?” If you’re facing a cancer diagnosis, it might be an oncologist or your primary care physician. Or you may prefer talking to your pastor, therapist or coach before reaching out to a doctor. Carefully consider your questions and who you present them to. There are many well-meaning, but ill-informed humans out there. For this step you want someone who has the expertise and the integrity to answer your questions, refer you to someone who can answer your questions if they can’t or tell you your question(s) can’t be answered and why. (I discourage consulting Google for answers to big medical questions, including those related to a cancer diagnosis or pandemic. It will take a great deal of time and energy to distinguish reliable information from internet quackery. Save your energy and protect your peace by leaving Google out of it. If you absolutely must conduct your own research about your cancer diagnosis, visit the American Cancer Society’s website at www.cancer.org or the National Cancer Institute’s site at www.cancer.gov)
5) Identify & Evaluate Your Options
Finally, ask “What are my options?” By step 5, you will feel a sense of calm and acceptance. You will have filtered out a lot of the “What if’s” and doomsday scenarios, focusing instead on the things that can be known about the circumstance(s) that brought you to these five steps and the options at your disposal. You may have also discovered by step 5 that some of your questions do not have answers. Set those aside for now and ask yourself “What is my next best step here?” Write that step down, then ask yourself again, “What is my next best step?” Write your answer down, again. Repeat this process until you have a handful of options to consider and return to the person or persons from step 4 to discuss further. Or return to step 4, but this time ask “Who will review my options with me?”
As the world shutdown in March 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, it brought back the overwhelm, worry, stress and sadness that I felt in August 2016 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Now, like then, I expressed and acknowledged my feelings, asked questions, got some answers and considered my options. I still get struck and stuck when bad things happen. This five-step process helps untangle the things I can control from the things I can’t and brings calm to the chaos of an unexpected life event, helping me move forward with clarity and hope.