How to Think Clearly When Everyone is Scared

By Carl Robinson, Ph.D., © 2008

Over the past month or so, since the financial market crisis has deepened, I’ve had numerous conversations with executives. Several C-Level executives said that they were “scared” about what was happening. I’ve never heard that before in the many years that I’ve been working with business people. That type of reaction certainly made me take this crisis seriously, not because I was really worried about how we, as a country, would deal with it, but because I was worried about the collective emotional reactions, especially of our leaders.

When you are scared or overly anxious, it’s almost impossible to make good decisions. To put it succinctly, fear and anxiety causes neural reactions in our brain that activate our fight or flight responses akin to how animals react when threatened. The fear based neural reactions over power our capacity to think rationally, although most people think they are thinking rationally (that is truly scary). Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., author of Emotional Intelligence, called this physical/chemical reaction, “neural hijacking” or “emotional hijacking.” (The first two chapters of Goleman’s book provide a very good overview of the science behind these concepts.)

The Greek philosopher Epictetus once said, “We are disturbed not by events, but by our opinions of those events.” Right now, lots of events outside most of our experiences and control are happening and people are interpreting those events in the worst possible way. Unfortunately, because most of our leaders are very worried (both on the Right and Left), the general public has no rational counterpoints of reference. Some of our leaders’ opinions are fueling our fears and it begins to snowball… emotionally. We scan for further evidence that things are going downhill and, sure enough, we find further evidence.

How come Warren Buffett is still making great investment deals during all this? Goldman Sachs! Wow! Clearly, Warren has not been emotionally hijacked. What is it that informs his opinions? Wisdom? Experience? Perspective? He can afford to be calm. What’s a few billion to him? Probably all of the above. Regardless, I want our leaders to think as clearly in a crisis as he seems to do and not be ruled by fearful emotions.

In a previous briefing, I presented some thoughts about how to interpret “Tough Times.” Please refer to that briefing through the Executive Briefings link on this website. In this briefing, however, I’d like to recommend a couple of research-based techniques for effectively managing your emotions. These two techniques will help you “calm” yourself so that you can sleep better, feel more relaxed, reduce the negative physical side effects of stress and… think more clearly.

I will explain the basic processes involved (the techniques) so that you can put them to practice if you choose. I also made an mp3 recording of one of the exercises that will guide you through it. You can listen to, or download the recording from my website (free). I’ve included a link to it below.

The two techniques are: 1) Progressive muscle relaxation and 2) Mindfulness. There is nothing hocus pocus or space cadet about these. There is a whole body of medical and psychological research, which confirms that these practices or techniques can have a positive effect on your emotions, body and mind. They help elicit the “relaxation response,” a term coined by Herbert Benson, M.D., of Harvard Medical School and the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine.

Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique first developed in 1938 by Edmund Jacobsen. The idea behind it is that muscles in the body react to anxiety-provoking thoughts and events. A buildup of muscle tension then increases the actual feeling of anxiety. What further research has found is that the opposite is true as well: if muscles relax, the physiological tension decreases, and anxiety also decreases. The technique consists of tensing and relaxing major muscle groups (e.g., shoulders, abdomen, arms) while paying attention to the sensations in each part of the body. After you tense and relax each muscle group, you say to yourself “relax.” That pairs the word “relax” with the relaxed muscle state and will allow you to simple say to yourself “relax” at other times and induce the relaxation response when you need it most. The physiological benefits of progressive muscle relaxation include reduction in pulse rate, blood pressure and respiratory rate. And, as stated earlier, if you are less tense, you will probably think more clearly and make better decisions. The link to hear or download my guided version of this technique is at the end of the briefing.

Mindfulness is a technique that also elicits the “relaxation response.” The technique helps break the “train of every day thought” and worries while evoking the relaxation response. It’s a fairly simple practice. I use the word “practice” because doing it perfectly is not the object. Just doing it is what works.

Once or twice a day for 10 – 20 minutes find a quiet place (shut your office door), sit in a relaxed position with your eyes closed. Then, take a couple of deep belly breathes, letting go of the air slowly. Notice the relaxed feeling. Then, as you breathe in, say to yourself “in.” As you breathe out say to yourself “out.” Just pay attention to your breathing. Use the breathing as an anchor to focus your awareness. If a thought or feeling interrupts your attention, simply name the interruption and say it to yourself. For example, if you start day dreaming, as soon as you notice you’ve drifted off, simply say to yourself “day dreaming.” Then bring your attention back to your breathing and resume saying “in” and “out” with each breathe. (You can use any two words you like. “In” and “out” is my preference.) Continue practicing this for about 10 minutes the first few times and then gradually increase it to 15 – 20 minutes. Don’t feel like you’re failing because your mind keeps wandering. Don’t try to control your thoughts, just be aware of them. The whole point is to learn how to notice those intrusions and break the cycle for even a short moment by bringing your attention back to your breathing. It’s the practice of mindfulness that works.

After you have practiced these techniques a few times, you will have conditioned yourself to relax when you use the word “relax” or take a mindfulness moment to notice your breathing. So, if during other times of your day you notice you are getting tense or worrying too much, you can take a short break (1 minute can do it) and notice where you are tense and say to yourself “relax.” Or, you can take a short mindfulness break and take a couple deep breaths – noticing the in and out of your breathing and relax.

Give these two techniques a try. You really have nothing to loose except tension and fear.

To access the Mp3 for the Progressive Muscle Relaxation exercise please click here.