Understanding Stress in Crisis – Insight on how to strengthen your resilience



You may be professionally primed and systemically prepared to manage a crisis but how well can you manage yourself? Under extreme stress, people can react unpredictably incoherent rendering themselves ineffective in the least, or putting lives at risk in the worst case.

Those who thrive under pressure seem to act as if the pressure doesn’t exist. They think less and their instincts take over. To get to that level of allowing instincts to rule takes confidence that is centred in knowing rather than doing.

The mind is divided into two halves: the knower and the doer. The knower is the passive half of the mind that has been established on a foundation of knowledge and inner awareness, and directs through intuitive insight. The doer is the active half that responds with evaluating, thinking and controlling. The knower and the doer interplay sharing the same source of mental energy but when under emotional stress the doer consumes most of the mental energy with over thinking at the cost of intuitive knowing.

Stress comes from the feeling that a certain set of circumstances shouldn’t be happening giving rise to the perceived inability to cope. This leads to a mindset of resistance to the present moment and drifts off into fearful projections of the future. Under pressure personalities can shift, thinking can become distorted and emotional overwhelm can lead to the arising of insecurities that threaten professional performance. An example was in 2005 when I was working at the front line in post tsunami Sri Lanka in a psychosocial relief initiative headed by UNICEF and the ministry of mental health. I was supervising teams of freshly graduated medical students awaiting internship, with field visits to schools, camps, and communities along the southern coast. As young doctors they were impressionable and eager to help their people despite their inexperience and lack of specialization in mental health. Out in the field they were stripped bare of their idealism when they faced the horrific ordeals of the survivors. Emotional projections into the graphic stories sucked their energy and sent their heads spinning as they lost objective focus of their psychosocial mandate as relief workers.

In emotionally charged situations with pressure to perform the doing mind can kick in with menacing thoughts that only enhance a sense of inadequacy. Thoughts like “We’ve got to get this right! This is so important, I can’t make the wrong move!” can be seemingly understandable exclamations. But actually this is the overactive half of the brain distracting attention as it falsely believes that elevating the importance of the moment in your mind will help you to “try harder”. It can only get in the way of the knowing that you are capable and the clear recognition of what is the best way forward. Equally when you enter a high-pressure situation and react with overzealous confidence, it can actually rob you of the clarity that comes from instinctive knowing.

Why do you think people are drawn to dangerous, thrill-seeking sports? When their life is on the line there is no sense of doership. Their doing mind may take credit later and map out the complexities of strategic decision-making that enabled them to achieve great feats, but in truth there is no time for thought. Instead they were driven by an elixir of adrenaline and mindful awareness that activated a spontaneous discernment. When athletes are performing without distraction they are said to be ‘in the zone’ reporting it’s as if time slows down. This is when they think less and their sports instincts take over. Just like a masterful musician who has dedicated his life to perfecting his art with disciplined training to ultimately be able to set aside the control of the doing mind and step into that knowing zone that brings on the accomplishment.

Maintaining impartiality can be difficult when we are used to naturally identifying with our need for control. Just like the medical graduates, their new identity as doctors gave rise to personal expectations and assumptions that they could help the survivors with some level of control over the situation. But when faced with reality, they also needed support to manage the focus of their attention. The solution lies in shifting attention from engaging in an emotionally driven mindset to observing it from a third person perspective.   This requires self-recognition of the ability to function as the detached internal observer, much like a managing director overseeing the management of his staff of selves – the different ‘me’s’ or internal voices with which we associate. Becoming self-aware heightens sensitivity towards our mental, emotional and physical states and helps us objectively recognise that the repetitive replay of internal dialogue is mostly a construct from the influence of social conditioning. Through self-awareness training we acknowledge our innate observing capacity and learn practical techniques to become detached from the fluctuations of the doing mind, facilitating the ability to operate with the heightened proficiency of our inner knowing. When centred in our knowing the doing performs as an important means to analyse and make clear decisions from a rational and balanced perspective.

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