How to keep cool in stressful situations

We can choose how we respond to stressful situations. Try this mindfulness technique next time you find yourself in a crisis.
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It’s 11pm, you’re waiting to fly home to Auckland from Los Angeles and you’ve just been bumped off your flight because the plane is over-booked.

The airline has offered to put you and your partner up in a hotel for the night and get you on the same flight out tomorrow. In the flurry of displaced passengers, you mishear which hotel you’re meant to be heading to and get in a taxi to a completely different one on the other side of LA – with a concierge who, of course, has no idea where you’re meant to be or what on earth you’re talking about.

You go back to LAX at 1am (with a taxi driver who’s minutes away from falling asleep at the wheel) only to realise the airport’s now closed and the only way to get any information is to send a tweet to the airline in New Zealand and try to get them to solve the problem for you.

Sounds like a nightmare, right? Well, it happened to me a few years ago and I’m still baffled by how calm I managed to remain throughout the whole experience. From the moment we realised we were at the wrong hotel, I knew there were two ways I could deal with the situation.

1) Get anxious, stressed and frustrated – which would stress out my boyfriend and the other stranded passenger we’d brought along for the ride.

Or 2) Remain calm, go with the flow and have confidence that it would all work out and I’d have a great story to tell at the end of it, which was the state of mind I chose to adopt.

In the end, we made it to the correct hotel around 3am and flew out the next day, but it was this experience that showed me that we really do have control over the way we react to change, whether that’s a sudden, unexpected problem (like my situation) or something more dramatic and longer-lasting such as losing your job or home.

As much as we might try to control the world around us, life happens and things change. The only thing we can truly control is how we respond, says accredited mindfulness consultant and life coach Cheryl Strawbridge from Ovio Mindfulness Solutions.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but what I’d done was employ mindfulness techniques to get through my sticky situation. By concentrating on the present, rather than thinking ahead to what else could go wrong and getting anxious about it, I managed to control my thoughts and remain calm.

“Mindfulness helps you to respond rather than react to change. It helps you cultivate the space to choose your response, so you can behave in ways you’re proud of (rather than in ways you later regret),” Cheryl explains.

“One of the simplest things you can do when faced with a challenging change is to sigh and smile. Simply let a big sigh out, then turn the corners of your mouth into a grin. Your sigh will naturally be followed by a deep inhalation which will refresh your system. And your smile will send a message to the brain that things are going well and promote the production of feelgood hormones, helping you cope with the challenging situation at hand.”

Mindfulness made easy

Cheryl and fellow Ovio mindfulness consultant Emily Mason recommend using RAIN, a simple and easy-to-remember mindfulness tool you can employ if you’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed by change.

Recognise what you’re experiencing

When faced with change it can be tempting to bury your head in the sand and ignore it, to resist the change and think ,’Why me?’, or to get angry. The first step is to give your full attention to what you’re experiencing. Notice how you’re feeling, what you’re thinking, and how the change is impacting you. You might like to name what you’re feeling, such as ‘anger’ or ‘sadness’.

Allow the experience to just be

Once you’re aware of how the change is affecting you, allow your feelings to be, just as they are. Allow what is happening to happen and how you’re feeling to be okay. Be present with what ‘is’ rather than what ‘should be’ or ‘could be’.

Investigate with kindness and compassion

Step three is to turn inward and investigate what’s going on inside you. If you’re feeling anxious about the change, how does this feel in your body? Does your chest feel tight, is your breathing shallow? Are your palms sweaty? Approach this investigation with compassion and kindness towards yourself. Remember that you’re a human with human feelings and it’s okay to feel the way you’re feeling.

Non-identify with the experience

In the final step of RAIN, recognise that you are not your thoughts, your feelings or your emotions. You are not your mind. And you are not your circumstances. You might be feeling angry, or worried, or sad as a result of the changing circumstances. But you are not anger, worry or sadness. And

just like the change you’re currently experiencing, your feelings will also soon change.

You can take your time to explore the RAIN technique as a daily meditation practice, or you can use it to gain perspective when you’re in the midst of challenging changes – such as stressful travel issues!

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