Notes from a therapist's chair: creating calm in a crisis

Helen McGillivray, Clinical Director


Learn how you as a leader can create calm in the midst of a crisis. Start with self-awareness, suggests Helen, psychological therapist.


The ongoing coronavirus crisis and new lockdown restrictions have left most of us feeling uncertain about the path ahead. The ongoing disruption poses a profound challenge to the way that we live and work, and we face the reality that life could look this way for some time to come.


In times of crisis, it is usual for people to seek social contact and community. As humans, we thrive on social contact and a sense of belonging and working together.


There is an opportunity here for business leaders to act with deliberate calm and direction—to help their teams work towards their goals with a shared sense of purpose.

It can be hard for us to deliberately cultivate calm, since we are biologically hardwired to a fight-or-flight response in a crisis. It takes practice, but in this crisis, if we allow ourselves as leaders to be vulnerable, there is opportunity for growth.


Rather than focusing on the difficulty of managing the work-life balance, we could perhaps view it as an opportunity to provide a sense of clarity and grounding to our staff amid the COVID storm. As leaders, we may need to prioritise this grounding as well as self-care so that we can lead by example. So, how best to achieve this?


1. Pay Attention to Yourself


Self-awareness is being aware of situations as they happen and noticing how we are responding emotionally and physically. For example, we might feel anxious or tense, we may have a racing heart or thoughts, and we may be irritated easily or respond abruptly to others.


These are our own unique internal experiences. Remember, you are not your thoughts. When you step back and see them as just thoughts, they don’t define who you are. Regular mindfulness practice can help cultivate this awareness.


2. Slow Down Your Reactions


Take time to reflect on how you responded to the first lockdown. Did you go into overdrive trying to save the world? How did that work out for you—and your team? Any lessons there?

When a stressful situation arises in your day, try to pause for a moment. Take a few deep breaths and pay attention to your internal experiences at that moment. What matters most to you right now? How do you want to respond? What sort of leader (or parent, or teacher) would you like to be?


3. Do Things Differently


We don’t need to carry on ‘as normal’—these are not normal times. It’s time to really get to know your colleagues: how are they doing, really? We are all unique, and unless we ask, we don’t really know what’s going on with people.


Encourage your team members to take breaks and be flexible. Use the OK Positive app to discuss well-being and encourage people to take time out during their day. Make an effort to really hear what people need. Notice how they respond and share your experiences.


4. Set an Intention


Take a few minutes at the beginning of your day to figure out what you want to accomplish. Ask yourself how you’d like this day to unfold. What actions would be required for this to happen? What obstacles might prevent this? How will your actions affect those around you? Then—commit to this.


5. Reflect


It’s important to focus on what went well. Make time in your day for reflection as well. Some people find it helpful to talk things over with a partner or friend; others keep a daily journal to capture the moment and look back on it later. One of my patients likes to write on Post-it notes and put them in a jam jar—over time, this jar becomes a tool for reflection.


6. Reframe Your Perspective


When we’re feeling stressed or anxious, we’re most likely caught up in negative thoughts and repetitive self-stories. Pay attention to what your mind is saying. When you find yourself thinking that nothing ever works out for me, reframe this as I’m having the thought that nothing ever works out for me. Stepping back and realising that these thoughts are just that—thoughts—puts you back in control.


7. Manage Your Energy


One thing I notice regularly is how hard it can be for leaders to find the right balance between work, and their physical and mental well-being. It’s so important to take time out to rest and recover. Try doing things at a slower pace for a couple of days and note how it impacts your attention span and productivity. Is it better? worse? the same?


Leadership during this time of crisis is a huge responsibility, but also a privilege. Where leaders are willing to be vulnerable, there’s a great opportunity to do things differently. Share your experiences; talk about the challenges that you face and how it makes you feel.


I keep hearing ‘we are all in the same boat’ but often it feels like we are all in individual boats, trying to keep up, but paddling at different times with different methods.

Consider slowing down, offering and asking for help, and cooperating on what needs to be achieved. You might just find that you get there quicker when you all work together as a team.