Why Remaining Calm is the Most Important Preparedness Tool

September 30, 2015

[Editor's NoteSocial distancing and shelter in place orders combined with the 24 hour news cycle can easily lead to feels of isolation and anxiety. To help you #PowerThrough these unprecedented times, we’re reviving one of our favorite blogs with tips for navigating our current circumstances].

When was the last time you attended a class focused on scaling a mountain face or navigating rapids? For most of us, spending a class period outside on the quad during college was a one time thing. At the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), class is held on the mountain or walking through the woods. Students embark on expeditions where they learn to rock climb, whitewater raft and lead through outdoor challenges. Instructors guide students through extreme scenarios daily so they can learn to remain calm under stress and make good decisions.

For the past 30 years, Marco Johnson has actively instructed wilderness education courses while recruiting and training NOLS field staff worldwide. We sat down with Marco to learn how he teaches students to thrive in off grid situations and how we can keep our cool when faced with an indoor emergency. Here are his top three tips:

1. Don’t panic. 

Photo Credit: Christensen

"Mark Twain once said, courage is not the absence of fear, it is the ability to control it. When faced with an emergency survival situation, don’t panic," says Marco. "Panicking affects your ability to think critically and exercise good judgement (and good judgement in an uncertain situation is your best friend). Make sure that you remember to remain as calm and project calmness to those around you. One of the ways to become as calm as possible is to take a deep breath and think about what is truly happening vs. what you think is happening. We are human beings and a lot of times we tend to react emotionally but it is very powerful to recognize the difference between perceived and real risk."

Indoor translationYou could have the best gear in the world and a solid plan, but if you lose your cool, it won’t mean anything. Here are few tools that can help:

  • Pause and use relaxation breathing techniques. Try the 4-7-8 breathing method. Exhale completely then close your mouth and breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds, hold that breath in for 7 seconds and then exhale through your mouth audibly for 8 seconds. Repeat this breathing method a couple of times and you should notice yourself start to recenter & refocus.
  • Keep perspective. Take a step back and look around to see what is actually happening (vs. what you think is happening). This will help you determine what the real dangers are so that you can make a game plan for yourself. It's easy to get into a negative spiral when watching the news constantly. Try scaling back to watching or reading once a day and signing up for local alerts on your phone. This will free up time and mental space for other activities. 
  • Distract yourself. Call or FaceTime a friend to get some 'face to face' interaction. Make your time at home productive by starting list of small projects you'd like to complete. Head to YouTube for exercise videos or look on your gym's website to see if anyone is hosting remote video streams. Establish a new routine where you block out times for certain activities to get your mind off the stress.

2. Create specific plans so that you are prepared for whatever comes your way.

Photo Credit: Mara Gans

Photo Credit: NOLS

"Instilling in people the ability to exercise judgement so they can evaluate risks, their abilities and make a good decision, is applicable across the board from outdoor to indoor survival situations. On NOLS expeditions, students see instructors mapping out daily hiking routes, pointing out potential hazards and discussing ways to mitigate them. Instructors debrief situations often so that everyone can reflect on what occurred. The goal is to provide students with enough prep that if they come across something unfamiliar, they have the appropriate judgment to say, ‘I don’t know how to approach this therefore I am going to do something different.’ Prior planning is great, it forces you to think about different situations so that when challenges come up, you know how to handle them."

Indoor translation: Plan for the most common emergencies or natural disasters that your region faces. 

  • Make a plan. Cover all of your bases so you know the supplies, shelter, and transportation you’ll need and what happens if you don’t have access to them. While practicing social distancing, meet with the family to make a plan at that start of each week - what supplies you'll need, how to get them, and what the week will look like at home. 
  • Practice. Review the plans with your family, pose a variety of scenarios and run through them together. Get everyone involved in the planning to make the time inside together as productive as possible.
  • Reflect. After practicing a plan, ask your family how you could do better next time so that you are constantly focusing on improving judgement. We'll all learn a lot over the next few weeks and can treat each week like a new start by implementing our learnings.

3. When you can’t plan, know how to assess the situation.

"Whether you’re in a backcountry or emergency context, this graphic can help you judge the risk of a situation. Ideally, you want avoid the high likelihood and high severity area. For example, if I’m standing on the edge of a 500 foot icy drop off, the likelihood is pretty high that I would fall and if I fall it is a permanent consequence. So that is probably something I should not do. The area in between is grey and the more you practice navigating it with this thinking, the more habitual it will become. For example, if I’m walking along a trail above a field of boulders and it’s a straight drop 30 feet below but the trail is 5 feet wide, it’s a very low likelihood of me falling, but if I fell it would be high consequence. I have to decide as an individual, leader of a group or family member how I feel about that risk equation. This has great carryover in terms of a natural disaster. Think of the fires going on in the West. There aren’t evacuation orders for everyone but there are significant hazards so you need to think, what is the likelihood of something happening and what is the consequence? Should I pack my family up and leave now or should I pack up our belongings into one area and wait for more instructions?"

Indoor translation: During indoor emergencies there is a lot of grey area when it comes to decision making. Here are a few things to consider before making tough decisions:

  • Know your abilities. Discuss how your particular strengths and weaknesses fit into your family's plan.
  • Assign roles to different family members based on their abilities. Whether it is calling for help, establishing the game plan or gathering supplies, make this part of the preparedness plan.
  • Make good judgement a habit. Picture the graphic above while making decisions in your day to day life, the more often you use this thinking, the more habitual it will become.
  • Be flexible. During these times, things are changing quickly so be prepared for the status quo to shift daily and be open to adapting your plan or routine to match. We're all in this together and if we keep calm, centered, and focused on the positives we'll power through.
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