Last month, after two bombs had exploded at the Boston Marathon, many in the city lost their cell service. This only added to the confusion and chaos, as people weren’t immediately able to reach their loved ones to confirm that they were indeed safe. Tragically, three people were killed and hundreds others injured, many seriously with life-threatening injuries and the loss of limbs. That horrific event was totally different in nature from Hurricane Sandy, which struck the East Coast last fall, and yet both are reminders of how dependent we’ve become on instantaneous communications. That dependency can be a double-edged sword. When a daughter who’s away at college posts on Facebook that she’s ill, we appreciate the easy convenience of being able to call her and immediately hear her voice to check to see how she’s doing. But when we learn of something like the Marathon bombings and we have trouble reaching a dear friend who was running in the race, our anxiety level shoots up as we continually re-dial his phone only to get a “cell phone not in service” message.
What I’m about to say might sound heretical, but hear me out. I believe that not being able to immediately learn the outcome of a potentially bad (if not devastating) situation can sometimes be a good thing. Let me explain. When we’re in an uncertain situation for a prolonged waiting period, our brains have the time to process various “what if” scenarios, and the advantage here is that we can better prepare for any bad outcomes. We can calm ourselves and sooth our nerves if we are smart about it. Of course, therein lies the catch: we need to be smart about how we use any waiting time.
Remember that our brains are basically wired in a “fight or flight” mode that was effective thousands of years ago, when humans needed to make quick decisions about animals that might have posed a danger. The important thing to note here is that, back then, humans generally had much down time between those “fight or flight” events, so people could recover from them.
Today, because of the constant barrage of information and our need for instantaneous communications, my fear is that we don’t have sufficient recovery time, and it’s no wonder why so many of us are highly stressed because we’re in a constant, heightened state of “fight or flight.” And it’s not only our health that can suffer from that constant stress; our decision-making capabilities are also at risk. When our brain doesn’t have the time to calm itself down and fully absorb information, weighing the pros and cons of any action, we are likely to make sub-optimal decisions or, worse, act precipitously. As just one small example of that, how many of us have failed to follow the prudent advice of waiting overnight before sending an angry e-mail and then lived to seriously regret it?
In my consulting work with executives, I continually advise them to take a “mirror moment.” The practice is derived from a children’s story in which a panda takes a boy to a pond to view the pristine water and in it he sees his reflection. The panda then throws a pebble into the pond and asks the boy what he sees. The boy can no longer see his face as now the reflection is blurred by the ripples. The lesson is that, to see things clearly, you need to have a calm, quiet mind. The exercise I teach execs is to close their eyes and imagine the face of someone they love dearly. “Try to see his or her reflection in a still pond for 60 seconds,” I tell them. For most people, the minute will seem much longer than it is, but after that time they will typically feel much better and their minds will have quieted down. Don’t forget that our brains are like a muscle, and we need to exercise it properly so that it will react in productive ways in stressful situations. So try to engage in the mirror moment at least once a day. I realize that, at first, the “mirror moment” exercise might sound hokey to you, but give it a try and let me know if it helps. Also, tell me about any similar exercises you might have. Some people take long walks, practice yoga, or listen to music to quiet their minds, but the beauty of the “mirror moment” is that it takes literally just a minute and you can practice it anywhere.