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How to Calm the Anxious Brain

Dawn Gelderloos

A Leadership Message + Video from Dawn Gelderloos, ICAN Faculty Member

Hello Everyone! I’m Dawn Gelderloos. I am a program leader for ICAN’s Defining Leadership Series and custom programs and a leadership development coach for ICAN. In my home state of Colorado, I am also a volunteer firefighter and an Emergency First Responder. I’d like to take a few minutes to talk with you about how we can calm the anxious brain in times of uncertainty.

In a sense, we must begin to normalize the situation we’re in. This mindset helps to maintain our energy, focus on the task at hand, adapt to changes, and anticipate the needs ahead.

Dawn Gelderloos

ICAN Faculty

As a first responder, I’ve experienced the surge of adrenaline in a crisis.

I remember an incident back in September on a windy and hot day. My pager went off. The message said, “Smoke Report”. So, we gathered our gear, and headed out the door. As we neared the scene, I suddenly noticed not only smoke, but flames and fire rushing across the hillside and heading directly towards several neighborhoods. This was bigger than we thought. I could feel my heart begin to race and my breathing increased.

During an emergency response, we are fueled by the need to assess a situation, problem solve, maintain focus and work together as a team. While this heightened response is important in an emergency, and in this instance, it served to get all of us moving and planning our next steps, it’s also equally important that we quickly calm the anxious brain and focus on the task at hand.

In a sense, we must begin to normalize the situation we’re in. This mindset helps to maintain our energy, focus on the task at hand, adapt to changes, and anticipate the needs ahead.

The past few weeks have been challenging and filled with some level of uncertainty for all of us. The global pandemic is changing the way we live. While we’ve now had many weeks to adjust to this “new normal”, you may still find yourself compulsively watching the news, getting lost in your thoughts, or feeling worried or anxious about the future. Many people have lost their jobs or are working from home or may be feeling isolated. So how can we understand our fear and learn to work with it? How do we manage our brains when they are constantly in overdrive?

At ICAN, our leadership programs explore neuroscience and focus on how our brains and our bodies react to threatening situations. And how this impacts our ability to think and reason and to lead others. During times of uncertainty, the brain sounds an alarm and signals danger. This has been referred to as our fight or flight response and it all happens in a small part of the brain called the amygdala.

This tiny powerhouse sends messages to the body to mobilize in response to a perceived danger. Our bodies are flooded with adrenaline and cortisol and other chemicals that prepare us for a perceived threat. However, if this continues for long periods of time it will lead to stress. Over time it can take its toll on our bodies and on our minds—leading to a host of mental and physical symptoms including high blood pressure, increased anxiety, fear, hypervigilance, anger, and impatience.

In less stressful times our rational brain would dictate our response. But, when the amygdala is hijacked, it impacts our ability to process new information and ideas and it even impairs our ability to think clearly, to have creative insight, and to solve problems.

So how do we calm an anxious brain? And how do we lead others during times of crisis?

First, consider the nature and the anatomy of fear. When we are fearful, we are often worrying about how some external force will impact us. We can begin by taking charge of our internal reactions to those external forces. Rather than letting those forces control us, we have the power to master our emotions. While we may not be able to control the events that happen in the world around us, we can decide how to respond to them.

So, let’s talk about four key strategies for calming the anxious brain and leading through a crisis.

Strategy #1: Be Here Now

Yes, Be Here Now. This is the practice of intentionally bringing your attention to the present moment and paying attention to what is going on around you and within. The purpose of presence or mindfulness is to give our brains and bodies an opportunity to relax the stress response and to come back to equilibrium—a sense of balance. When we shift our attention from fearful or anxious thoughts to the actual experience of the body breathing, we begin to calm the nervous system, and we are able to take in new information more effectively.

Strategy #2: Communicate Through the Crisis

After 9/11, many employees described how important it was to hear the voice of their supervisor or leader to ease anxiety, provide updates, to listen, to feel supported. Be transparent as a leader. You are not going to have all the answers. Personalize your methods of communication. We all have different thinking preferences and behavioral styles. Communicate in the style that works for your co-worker, employee, family member.

Strategy #3: Positive Mental Attitude

You may hear this a lot. Stay positive. But this isn’t about thinking good thoughts and everything will be okay. This is something that comes from your head and your heart. In any crisis, there comes a time when we all start to feel a little tired, worn, even weary. Exhaustion can cause apathy and apathy can lead to discouragement and a loss of hope. As leaders, it is our job to maintain a positive mental attitude for ourselves and for others. To listen, to read the emotions of others, to gauge when to push and when to ease up, to encourage, to help others focus and find meaning and purpose, to remind them that they are part of a team.

Strategy #4: Invest in Others

Invest in your relationships — Share your experience and share your stories. The stories we share with one another will bring us closer together and will shape how we work and live together.

Invest in your community — The pandemic has opened up a lot of opportunities to help others. Helping someone else is the best way to calm the anxious brain and rise above your fears.

When dealing with uncertainty, as leaders we all need to utilize strategies to calm the anxious brain first in ourselves and then by helping and supporting others.

During the wildland fire I spoke about, it was critical to calm the anxious brain. To be alert. Act decisively. Stay focused. Communicate clearly.

Here’s something I heard recently.

“Fear only has the power we give it. Hope works the same way.”

Bob Goff

As leaders we can all continue to do these things to keep our organizations moving forward and our families thriving. We’ve got this. The four strategies, however, speak to who want to “be” in the process as well. When we are leaders who are present, transparent, and kind, when we can offer compassion, patience, and understanding, everything around us changes. Calming the anxious brain allows us to lead through a crisis and to help others. It gives all of us more focus and energy to persevere.

Thanks for being here now. Please stay healthy and safe and know that all of us at ICAN are right here with you.

Learn more about Dawn and her work with ICAN.