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Making the Most of a Disturbing Situation

3 questions to help you gain perspective when troubled and distressed.

Source: baranq/Depositphotos

The more stressed you feel, the easier your emotions will hijack your good sense and outlook.

Emotions commandeer the brain whenever you feel stressed no matter what is really at stake, and the pandemic has intensified emotions. Anxiety is pervasive. Relationships feel strained. You are probably making decisions based on how you feel, not on any logic presented. Then you use reasoning to fabricate why your reactions and decision are justified.

This loss of perspective is especially present for those who feel they are carrying the mental load of worry, guilt, and checklist responsibilities for their families.

Whether in the role of leader, coach, spouse, or friend, you must be mindful of your emotions to either shift them to feeling something else or just factor their impact into how you are judging any disturbing situation.

Have you found yourself having irrational thoughts or responses to the current situation? You can't learn from pain if you don’t know what to ask yourself.

While the chaos and uncertainty you are feeling now is a challenge, this is also an excellent opportunity to learn about yourself and grow. With an open, curious mind and a willingness to reflect, you can extract valuable lessons from difficult times. If reflecting on these questions on your own feels difficult, consider sorting through your answers with a coach.

The following three questions can help you explore what distortions emerge when you feel anxious or angry. When you “see” your thinking, you can better recognize how your emotional reactions have impacted your relationships, leadership, and peace of mind. Reflecting on these questions will also help you identify practices you want to make into habits to help you more consistently see through your emotions even as your days return to normal.

1. What derails you?

When your brain perceives you have lost something important to you, your emotions are triggered. The greatest trigger in uncertain times is the sense of having no control in the present and no certainty about the future.

Other triggers include losing your sense of self-worth, harmony or balance, personal freedom, consistency, safety, and even the loss of fun. When life feels meaningless, upside down, constricting, dangerous, or joyless in any combination, your emotions distort reality. You imagine the worst will happen and judge people negatively.

The key is to catch yourself reacting when your emotions are triggered. Then you can discover if the threat is real or not. When you feel your emotions taking over, ask yourself, “What is the loss? Is there anything in my control to regain what I most value?” A candid, honest review will help you understand yourself better and diffuse some of the emotional intensity overwhelming your brain.

2. What good can come from this?

While you may dislike when people advise you to look for the "the silver linings," there are benefits in seeing what could end up being a positive result of a bad situation. Many people experience what is true about life, their relationships, and their work that they avoided accepting before. This can help them plan for a future more aligned with their values and desires. Even small changes such as taking time to clean out your closets and fixing things that have been broken forever can change your perspective on what is important to keep or give away.

Set aside some time to write what you are learning about yourself. Look at why this situation came about and what adaptations have had to occur. How has communication changed? What have you shifted that is positive in your living and working arrangements? Don’t compare what is present to the past. Find the good in what is changing and emerging.

3. What will never go back to what it was before?

What is likely to continue based on the disruptions? At first, let your thoughts flow freely here, focusing on the what – not the how, which will come in planning phases later. Look back to what you identified as the good that is coming from the event. For example, you might not want to continue making all meetings virtual, but do you want to continue noticing how to get everyone to participate more freely, or how you are now using stories and graphics much better to engage people’s attention. How can you sustain the positive adaptations you had to make when the disruption occurred?

And remember, your ability to be thoughtful and manage your reactions is hurt by sleep deprivation, poor nutrition, lack of exercise, and the loss of contact with friends and people you care about. If you don’t take care of yourself, you will have a difficult time making the most of a disturbing situation.

Take mental breaks—five minutes or more—every day. Let go of your thoughts. Relax your body. Detach from the world as best you can with quiet or calming music. Ride the wave of relief and lightness as long as you can before going back to your work and responsibilities.

Finally, be careful not to take on other people’s emotions in these trying times. Negative emotions are contagious. Continue to monitor your emotional triggers so you can stay on top of your reactions when you feel troubled and distressed.


Ideas adapted from Outsmart Your Brain: How to Manage Your Mind When Emotions Take the Wheel (2nd edition, 2017).