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A Beginner's Guide to Navigating Survival Emotions in Today's New Normal

Nichole Kelly
Nichole Kelly

Your emotions are probably in survival mode right now. Here's how to successfully navigate them through a crisis and in your everyday life.

The spread of COVID-19 has created unprecedented, uncertain and uncomfortable times. Everything from school closures to our offices shutting down has dramatically changed our daily lives and shifted our routines. In times like these, our relationship with our emotional system is front and center in our world.  

Understanding our emotional system

We may be experiencing new emotions that make us nervous, uncomfortable and worried about what's to come. We have to accept that fear is unavoidable – whether it be fear of the virus itself or fear of what the shutdowns mean for our businesses and livelihood. 

But I believe every experience offers a lesson. In this situation, we have an opportunity to improve our emotional intelligence. Basic emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize your own emotions, identify the lessons they offer and put those lessons into action. Advanced emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize emotions in other people and move toward harmonious growth. 

During uncertain times, every one of us will have to navigate the "fight, flight or freeze" response triggered within ourselves, our families and our co-workers. Whether you're in the office or working remotely, every individual in a business – from executives to entry-level employees – is trying to navigate these survival emotions. 

Survival emotions involve our intimate relationship to safety, approval and control triggers. Safety triggers include our personal security, health and financial well-being. Our approval triggers relate to whether we feel love and belonging in our community. Control triggers embody our ability to affect what is happening in our companies and communities. During this crisis, all three are being affected, creating a trifecta of stressors in our system. When activated, these stressors cause our body to secrete stress hormones, which, according to the Cleveland Clinic, "decreases your body's lymphocytes – the white blood cells that help fight off infection."

In short, stress and anxiety could literally turn your fears into reality.  

As you work through this challenging time, you must be mindful of your own survival emotions and those of your staff and colleagues, instead of being crippled by fear and anxiety. Here are some tools you can use when your survival emotions take over.

1. Breathe.

It seems so simple, but it's essential to focus on breathing when our emotions begin to take over. Here are two ways to put this into practice:

  • Beginner level: Take six deep breaths. During a fight-or-flight response, you hold your breath, which cuts off your brain's oxygen supply. Taking six breaths will release feel-good neurochemicals into the brain.
  • Advanced stage: Once you master the initial six breaths, use the Wim Hof breathing method. Wim Hof is a pioneer in breathing therapy and one of the most researched humans in the world, famous for his astounding resilience to freezing temperatures. The science behind it explains why this method is so successful.

2. Prioritize movement.

Emotions are simpler if you treat them as energy in motion. The more we move with our emotions – rather than fighting their existence – the faster we can get them to pass. Jill Bolte Taylor, neuroanatomist and author, teaches that emotions really only last 90 seconds. The key is to process and integrate them. 

  • Beginner level: Start by going for a walk while practicing social distancing of 6 feet. Getting fresh air and moving throughout the day, for for as long as your body allows, is incredibly therapeutic.
  • Advanced stage: When you've built up to it and your body is prepared, go for a run. COVID-19 is a direct attack on the lungs, so keeping our lungs healthy must be a priority. Get your heart rate up and your lungs working with a run, a HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workout or a bike ride.

3. Now move the emotion.

There are many ways we can move our bodies, but the simple key to dealing with survival emotions is to move them.

A therapist who works with children experiencing homicidal and/or suicidal desires gave me the best example. She tells the kids to describe a swamp. The swamp symbolizes depression: It's stagnant, it stinks, and it's full of pests. She then asks them to imagine a stream. The stream symbolizes them as individuals, since it's full of motion, clarity and adventure.

How can you apply this to your daily life?

  • Beginner level: To start, consider simple stretching or yoga. A standard YouTube search will offer hundreds of free classes. Find one that resonates with you and use it. Whether it's Bikram yoga or laughter yoga, it will move the emotion through your body.
  • Advanced stage: A great way to move emotion is to dance. We all can move our bodies to music, whether it "looks good" or not. Close your eyes, get into your body, and allow the music to move you. 5Rhythms dancing is a free-form practice that uses five waves specifically designed to move emotion: flow, staccato, chaos, lyrical and stillness. Your only job is to move in whatever way your body calls you to. 

4. Don't neglect the vagus nerve.

Stimulating the vagus nerve creates an almost immediate shift out of your current emotional pattern and releases positive neurochemicals to make you feel good. 

  • Beginner level: The most straightforward way to stimulate the vagus nerve is to submerge your face in ice water for 15 seconds. This might sound crazy, but this tactic not only stimulates the vagus nerve but also has the bonus of being good for your skin.
  • Advanced stage: Another technique is to take a cold shower or ice bath. Athletes have been using this tactic for decades to stimulate advanced muscle recovery and improve immunity. 

5. Practice emotional awareness.

Many of us have experienced those moments when our emotions overtake our response mechanisms. The key to emotional intelligence is self-awareness through the understanding and identification of your emotions. 

  • Beginner level: Start with meditation. When you feel a certain way, ask yourself, "What emotion is this?" and "What am I making this emotion mean?" To really dig in, sit for 10-20 minutes and allow yourself to witness everything going through your mind and your body. Use the time to try to name the emotion you are feeling.
  • Advanced stage: Move on to guided meditation. If you want to really understand your emotions, allow yourself to feel them long enough to notice the subtle differences between emotions like fear and anxiety. (Spoiler alert: I've found fear and excitement to be the same emotion wrapped in different packages.) Some helpful tools I use are the phone apps Insight Timer and Soulvana.

To be an effective leader, you must understand and navigate your emotions during this time. This is a time to put your oxygen mask on so that you can serve your team, your family and your community.

Trust me, I know it's often easier to ignore than to explore. But Julie Reisler, creator of The You-est You, said it best: "It takes courage to tune into your heart." The world is counting on you. You can find your peace and share it with the world.  

Image Credit: YurolaitsAlbert / Getty Images
Nichole Kelly
Nichole Kelly Member
As VP of Marketing at Windward Consulting, Nichole is responsible for elevating Windward’s market position by demonstrating its value and competitive advantage to the addressable market. Nichole ran the largest study on emotional intelligence in Corporate America, published one of the first true social media ROI case studies and has spent the last 22 years shaping the B2B marketing industry through her work with the Fortune 1000 companies as a market strategist, thought leader, motivational speaker and published author.