Calm Is Contagious: 5 Ways to Stay Calm in the Middle of Chaos
Calm is contagious. If you don’t remember anything else that you read in this article, remember these three words: Calm is contagious. So why are those words so important? Because they can quite possibly be the difference between success and failure, even life and death, in an emergency. Let’s talk about why being calm matters and then 5 ways to stay calm in the middle of an emergency situation.
Why Talk About This Now?
Well, I teach this all the time in emergency procedures classes we do with church safety teams. We touch on it in a lot of different kinds of training. But what brought this up most recently was the story told to me by my friend Ben about an incident that happened to him on a cruise ship.
Ben was awakened by screaming that was coming from the hallway outside of his cabin door. His wife informed him that he needed to “go handle that”, so out he went. What he found was a big serving of chaos and confusion. Amid the screaming, Ben was able to figure out that the unconscious man on the ground was diabetic. Ben didn’t have a lot of medical training, but what he did have was several classes on preparedness. He later told me “No kidding, I heard your voice clearly tell me ‘Calm is contagious’, and I knew this needed some calm.” Despite not being able to take over medical response, Ben was able to start leading. He remembered things we had taught him about making eye contact and giving people specific assignments (orders) and how they will most likely do what you’ve instructed them to do.
While hearing a story like this is gratifying, what made it even better was that Ben used it as a teachable moment for his kids who were also present. After everything was done, he taught them the principles of calmness and why it matters.
Why Does Staying Calm Matter?
Simply put, staying calm is vital to successfully navigating an emergency. Whether it’s a life-threatening medical episode, a car crash, a fire at work, or an active shooter at the mall, reacting with calm preparation is always going to be more effective than blind panic. Your safety and the safety of others may depend on your ability to think and act deliberately.
Is it Really Contagious?
Pretty much. If you are calm and interact with people in a calm manner, they will often begin to mirror it. Like any infection, some people are just naturally immune to it, and they won’t catch it from you. But the majority will.
The corollary is that panic is also contagious. It’s highly contagious and fewer people are immune to it. Stupid is also pretty contagious. It’s easy to lead a group of people into making stupid choices that they often wouldn’t have made on their own. This means the calm, prepared voice needs to be the one they’re hearing, not the shrill voice of panic and unpreparedness.
The Positive Effects of Staying Calm
Aside from infecting people with calmness, there are actual benefits to it. Here are a few of them:
- Clearer Thinking: When you’re calm, your mind is better able to process information and make rational decisions. In contrast, panic can cloud your judgment, making it difficult to assess the situation accurately and choose the best course of action.
- Effective Problem Solving: Emergencies often require quick thinking and problem-solving. Remaining calm allows you to think through problems logically and develop solutions more efficiently. Panic can lead to impulsive and potentially harmful decisions.
- Safety: Panicking can put your safety and the safety of others at risk. In emergency situations, following safety protocols and instructions is crucial. A calm demeanor enables you to follow evacuation plans, use safety equipment correctly, and interact with first responders effectively.
- Reduced Risk of Injury: Panic can lead to physical actions that increase the risk of injury. For example, running blindly, pushing through crowds, or making hasty movements can lead to accidents and harm. Staying calm helps you move with purpose and caution.
- Emotional Well-being: Managing your emotions during an emergency can have long-term benefits for your mental and emotional well-being. Panic and extreme stress can lead to trauma while remaining calm can help mitigate the emotional impact of the situation.
How to Increase Your Capacity for Calm
By now, you may be thinking to yourself “ok, I get it, stay calm, but tell me how.” There are things that you can do before and during an emergency that can help increase your calmness in the middle of chaos.
- Control your breathing: As simple as it sounds, controlling one’s own breathing is amazingly effective. Deep breathing helps to reduce the production of stress hormones like adrenaline and can help you stay more composed. An easy exercise is what we call “tactical breathing”. Breathe in through the nose for 4 seconds. Hold for 4 seconds. Breathe out through the mouth for 4 seconds. Repeat 4 times.
- Focus on the Present: Instead of dwelling on worst-case scenarios that may never come or future outcomes, concentrate on the immediate actions you can take to address the situation. This prevents your mind from racing with fear and anxiety. Ask yourself, “What can I do right now to improve this situation?”
- Positive Self-Talk: Remind yourself that panic and anxiety won’t help the situation. Reassure yourself that you are capable of handling the emergency and that there are resources and support available. Repeating calming phrases to yourself can also be helpful.
- Prioritize and Plan: Quickly assess the situation and identify the most critical tasks or actions that need to be taken. Establish a plan and focus on executing it step by step. Breaking the emergency down into manageable tasks can make it feel less overwhelming. Sometimes we call this by another name: triage. Identifying the most important problem first helps keep the scenario from getting worse.
- Practice Emergency Preparedness: Being prepared for potential emergencies in advance can significantly reduce anxiety during an actual crisis. Familiarize yourself with safety procedures, create emergency plans for your home and workplace, and have essential supplies on hand. When you are prepared, you are more likely to respond calmly and confidently.
Don’t Forget Mental Preparation
Mental preparation can also be helpful. A common saying in preparedness is “The body can’t go where the mind hasn’t been.” There’s some truth in that. By mentally preparing through visualization and thought exercises, we can make our minds react more confidently. That has an effect on our body response as well.
Athletes use visualization all the time. Swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, says he mentally rehearses every aspect of his swim, from the start to the finish, visualizing a perfect performance before entering the pool. Legendary boxer Muhammad Ali said, “The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.” This holds true in emergencies as well. These battles can be won or lost in the weeks and months before they even happen.
Research and anecdotal experience have also shown that mental preparation is effective in helping the mind deal with the event after it is over. There is evidence that good mental preparation can reduce the frequency or severity of PTSD, survivor guilt, and other forms of mental trauma.
The Bottom Line
Calm is contagious. Being calm and staying calm in an emergency not only helps increase your odds of success, but it can help others as well. Don’t let others infect you with their panic (or stupidity). Instead, prioritize, plan, and execute your plan, whether prepared or newly created.