When I was twelve years old, I got lost in New York City. I’d taken the bus from my house 3 miles south to a giant hobby store featuring elaborate slot car racing tracks. Watching kids racing their cars and listening to the “shop talk”, I lost track of time.
When I left the store it was dark.
The street was empty. I started walking in what I hoped was the right direction to catch a bus home. A group of older boys came around the corner. I panicked and started running. When a bus pulled up just ahead of me I jumped on collapsing into a seat, breathing hard, but feeling safe.
Unfortunately, I was still lost.
Jumping on the bus had given me a feeling of relief. But, as I stared at the street signs, I realized that this bus was taking me in the wrong direction.
When unexpected changes throw your work and your world off balance, there’s a natural tendency to seek safety, stability, certainty.
When your world is riddled with uncertainty and you don’t know where you are or where you’re going – when you’re lost – you want relief. Action plans can provide just such relief. An action plan offers a haven from uncertainty, anxiety, and doubt. They can soothe your emotions. They can make you feel safe and in control.
And, that’s why action plans are so dangerous.
Challenging situations stir up strong emotions. But, tough as the situation may be, it’s the emotions that drive you wild. It’s not easy to stay focused, balanced, or open as strong emotions spin through your nervous system, churning up more emotions, releasing streams of anxious thoughts and body tensions.
And when strong emotions ripple through a team, the challenge is even more complex.
Now, you’re not simply contending with your own anxiety but the emotional reactions of everyone around you. It’s like being in an emotional echo chamber – all the anxiety, doubt, and frustration rebounds and escalates into a crescendo of emotionality.
An action plan offers a way out.
It’s like a well-lighted bus on a dark and threatening street. It’s a way to escape the uncertainty of the moment. So, you jump on. The team piles on. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief. But, moving into action, while it may relieve anxiety, doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re heading in a useful direction. You’re in motion, but not necessarily moving forward.
Moving into action to escape the discomfort of difficult emotions is better termed reaction than action.
It’s a viscerally driven, knee-jerk reaction designed to provide an escape hatch from difficult emotions. You want to return to a state equilibrium and a sense of control. Good idea! But, reacting doesn’t get you there. Reacting provides a temporary sense of relief – followed by a heightened sense of anxiety when it becomes clear that the (re)action plan isn’t working.
So, what’s the alternative?
Rather than move into action, stop.
Rather than moving immediately into action, when emotionality is high, stop.
Stop trying to “solve the problem” and shift your attention from your emotionally fueled thoughts to your breathing.
Start attuning to state of your body/mind.
Just notice the rhythm of your breath. Be aware of any places of tension in your body. Witness the thoughts that are moving through your mind. Do this all without analyzing or fixing. Just be aware and attuned to what is actually happening in your body and mind.
Then, take a long slow inhalation and hold it for 1-2 seconds. Now, exhale slowing and smoothly. Do this three times and you’ll feel a shift.
It’s a shift from a state of anxious arousal to one of greater peace and balance.
This shift happens as you activate your parasympathetic nervous system – which is linked to the exhalation. The parasympathetic nervous system is in charge of what researchers have termed the “relaxation response”. It’s really, really hard to be reactive when the parasympathetic system (PNS) is active. So, by intentionally bringing your PNS online, you automatically neutralize the impulse to jump onto the bus of (re)action planning when things get tough.
Your capacity to thoughtfully plan, collaborate, and make decisions is critical when you’re facing difficult challenges and uncertain times.
By adding emotionally fueled anxiety to the mix, you only make the situation more challenging. Re-balancing your body/mind establishes a coherent and capable foundation from which you can think, interact, and finally develop an action plan that will take you where you want to go.
So, when you feel the fires of anxiety starting to ignite in your nervous system, rather than leap into (re)action planning, let that bus go by and :
- Disconnect your attention from the external situation.
- Pay attention to the activity of your body/mind
- Take several long slow breaths – focusing on the exhalation.
- Let the breath find a natural rhythm and feel the sensations of the breath as it moves in and out of your body.
- Notice the inner shift as your parasympathetic system comes online.
- Then, consider your action plan.