Keep calm and carry on! How to sort your head out in a crisis

Fight, flight or freeze?  This article looks at what you need to know about your brain to get you through a crisis.

Faced with a crisis at work do you fight it out, freeze, or run in the opposite direction? If you want to be more in control, you need to understand what’s happening in your head.

What’s going on in your head in a crisis?

Put simply, this is “the moment the brain stops functioning.” Your brain evolved through three layers. The first layer, is called the “fish brain”, the next is a “mammalian brain”, and finally the frontal lobes evolved which are the “human brain”.

Depending on how stressful you find a crisis, the layers of your brain stop working.

  1. Your ‘human brain’ stops first. This affects your thinking and reflection.
  1. Your ‘mammalian brain’ then takes over, wanting to retaliate and bite someone.
  1. With even more stress, you finally enter the ‘fish brain’ state, which only knows that you must flee from danger.

So how do you handle a crisis?

To solve a crisis, you need to be in control. You need to be able to hold yourself responsible for the outcomes of your actions.  If you blame circumstances or luck, then you will see yourself as a victim.  Most successful people have this quality to hold themselves accountable, and this is called an internal locus of control.

This doesn’t mean that if you have an internal locus of control you don’t experience negative emotions. In a crisis, you can expect to experience at least one or more of six negative emotions: fear, sadness, agony, contempt, disgust or shame.

Negative emotions are not necessarily unhealthy – in fact, they are a healthy reaction to crisis situations. But they may give rise to a negative reaction, which is counter-productive to your success.

What can you do next?

What is in your circle of influence? Stephen Covey’s Circles of Influence and of Concern are one of the keys to staying positive. When we focus on what we can directly influence: namely our thoughts, moods, actions, decisions and communication with others, we start to feel motivated to influence the things around us.

If you focus on what is in your Circle of Concern, however, (things over which you have no influence) then you can feel as if you are banging your head against a brick wall.

Don’t just do something, stand there!

It may be better to stand still until you have a grip on what you are facing. Explore your perceptions and what is really in your circle of influence.  But if you choose to ‘freeze frame’ like this, put a timeline on it and let people know what you’re doing.

Can you leave a crisis situation?

If you perceive the situation to be a lost cause, or if you’re not capable of doing something productive, exit could be a valid option. However, you do need to communicate this to the people concerned. Equally, you could decide to stay and fight. But remember that you will need friends who are supportive and can guide you.

Surviving a crisis at work is largely about being self-aware, and understanding what is going on in your head. If you want to survive and even thrive during hard times you need to challenge your own perceptions and beliefs and then do the work needed to stay in control.