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How to Think More Effectively During a Crisis

Shift your thoughts so you can move into the future with more clarity, confidence and control.

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During times of uncertainty, fear and anxiety, it's easy to become overwhelmed by the world around us. As we search for security and stability, we might be faced with all the things we can't control: the decisions our legislators make, the state of our healthcare system, whether our loved ones get sick and dozens and other circumstances. However, if we choose to, we can take solace in what we can control — which is a lot.

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Times of crisis are ripe with opportunity to remember that we are in control of our own thoughts, which in turn control our emotions and our actions. While it takes discipline and intentionality to put this practice into action, this concept is rooted in proven research in cognitive psychology. Here's how it works:

You experience the world. Something happens – your governor issues a stay-at-home mandate, your child gets sick or you can't make payroll. These events are facts that haven't been shaped by your own opinions, interpretations or assumptions. They simply exist, and they have a neutral charge; only you assign them positive or negative meaning.

You create your thoughts. In an attempt to make sense of your external environment, you consciously and unconsciously untangle what's going on around you. For example, an interpretation that might resonate during a crisis is: "My business is in a state of chaos."

Your thoughts cause your emotions. If you think your business is in a state of chaos, your feelings will follow suit, causing emotions like anxiety, frustration and panic.

Your emotions cause your actions. You respond to your feelings by acting, reacting or not acting at all. You might rush to lay off employees without thinking through the consequences, or you might be in denial and not do anything.

Your actions create your life. What you do and what you don't do shape your personal world, and they're all set into motion by the thoughts you created after the initial event.

When we view our experiences through this lens, we see that most of the model is within our sphere of influence; the only thing we can't control is what happens around us. What we do in response to those circumstances is where the magic happens.

Your first response in a state of crisis might be: "I can't possibly work from home, be a parent and a teacher, manage my business, be productive, and be okay at the end of it." But what happens if you take time to notice those thoughts and intentionally shift them to something else? As a general rule, these new thoughts shouldn't be complete opposites of the original thought; it won't serve us to replace the thought with, "This is fun; I love chaos." Our brain simply won't believe it. Instead, we can make minor shifts toward a more neutral state of mind with thoughts like:

  • "All I need to do is get through today."
  • "I knew this would be hard, but I survived another day."
  • "I'm doing the best I can."

With that change in thought, our feelings — and thus our actions and results — can change. Rather than feeling a negative emotion, we might instead feel something more neutral or even positive: acceptance, contentment or hope.

As those thoughts influence our actions, we face the day with new energy and with more control over that energy. Instead of reacting or not acting at all, we might have the energy to be proactive, feeling more powerful and in control than we did before.

While this exercise is certainly helpful in our current environment, this universal concept is applicable to any bad situation: the loss of a major client, a down year, or other unforeseeable circumstances in your business and personal life.

The next time it feels like it's all crashing down around you, take a moment to breathe. Try to separate fact from fiction so you can better interpret your circumstance, shift your thoughts, and control your emotions, actions and results. The goal isn't to completely rid your life of negativity — there's certainly a place for negative emotions, and a biological reason we feel them. Instead, acknowledge them, live in them for a moment and work to neutralize them so you can move into the future with more clarity, confidence and control.

Note about the contributors: This article is co-authored by Aileron President Joni Fedders and Aileron Facilitator and Leadership Coach Erika Alessandrini.

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