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What next? Preparing for Challenge — Aviation Frame – Part 3

We’ve all been there, or at least worried about being there … that heart-stopping moment of our mind going blank while we’re speaking in public. Eventually – or perhaps fairly quickly – we take a deep breath, refer to our notes, collect our thoughts and get back on track. Sometimes we may even be able to manage it with humour.

As discussed in the previous newsletters, a noticeable change in circumstances, whether sudden or slow onset, can cause us to react with startle, surprise or both.

If the change is perceived as threatening, our primitive ‘fight or flight’ response is activated and we may experience stress. A perception of an ‘overwhelming’ threat can even cause responses such as ‘freeze’, ‘fawn’ or ‘play dead’. We experience changes in our heart rate, blood pressure and breathing and our ability to process information is changed. Our attention is heightened and sharply focussed on the perceived threat, but higher cognitive functioning needed to make sense of the situation (drawing on our frames) and plan responses is impaired.

The previous newsletter covered actions we can take to increase our capacity and resources for facing challenges.

But what can we do ‘in the moment’ to help us move as quickly as possible from reaction – heart racing, cognitive impairment – to a place of calm where we can orientate ourselves and respond?

Some years ago, we got lost driving in Florence on a family holiday. We were warned ahead of time it would be challenging and did all we could to prepare, including downloading offline maps and preparing the route to the parking garage. We lost the GPS signal moments before we approached a critical turn … which we missed. We gradually became deeply lost, funneled down a succession of one-way streets, finally arriving at the edge of a famous piazza with no other way out. Driving on the piazza was not permitted and we had limited time to collect the key to our accommodation. We were feeling stressed! After taking a few deep breaths, we found a travel agent nearby, who marked our location on a paper map. I found a place to sit quietly and carefully plan a route out … which was ultimately redundant when the imminent arrival of an official motorcade meant the police needed us out of the way quickly. We received a motorcycle escort across the piazza – embarrassing and funny!

To give ourselves the best chance to respond to a challenge, we need to be able to get to a calm state to maximize our cognitive capacity, understand our situation and re-orientate ourselves. From there we can choose our actions, evaluate and adapt.

The previous newsletters’ practices can strengthen our ability and resources for getting to calm and understanding. To help us in the moment, I’ve borrowed further from aviation for three practices:

  • Recognise – confirm – breathe. I’m impressed by this practice because it works with our physiology. It uses the intense focus on the problem of the ‘fight or flight’ response, staying with it long enough to gather information about the situation and check it (in the case of aviation, with a crew member). Then engaging a calm state to increase cognitive capacity by taking a deep breath.

    • Practicing skills to increase awareness of your feelings and physical sensations can help you more quickly recognise heightened states of alert and use them more effectively.
  • AICC: this practice was developed by Boeing for dealing with engine failures and team environments, but is more broadly useful. Its primary purpose is to support correct identification of the problem. Resist the temptation to solve the problem. Poor or incorrect identification of the problem wastes time and effort, and may even cause more significant problems. It can be used multiple times to successively refine understanding:

    • Announce that there’s a problem or challenge. In a team, this means stating out loud for all to hear. Individually, this can mean you state out loud to yourself, or perhaps journal.
    • Identify. As clearly as possible, state what the problem or challenge is.
    • Confirm. In a team environment, have others provide confirmation or additional information. Individually, you could talk this over with colleagues or friends to confirm or clarify your understanding.
    • Commence. What action are you going to take?
  • GRADIE: This practice incorporates a shortened form of AICC, then moves to analysis and evaluation of actions. It can be repeated to refine understanding and responses:

    • Gather information.
    • Review or refine. Is the information current, correct, relevant, applicable?
    • Analyse. Together, Analyse and the next step, Decide, are sometimes called Options Generation. Be sure to stay creative and curious in this step to get out as many options as possible. Resist the temptation to judge options, which will close down creativity.
    • Decide which option(s) to take.
    • Implement.
    • Evaluate. What impact have your actions had? Are they solving the problem? Are they making it worse? What do you need to change?

Working with our physiology to gather information, then get to a calm space for understanding our situation and orientating ourselves improves our ability to choose appropriate actions, evaluate and adapt as necessary during challenge.

To get started, choose one of the three practices above. Recall a previous challenge and imagine yourself using your chosen practice, as discussed in the previous newsletter. What difference might the chosen approach have made to how you responded to the challenge?

Tip: Remember to be gentle with yourself, such as by using the practices in the previous newsletter series and in the earlier newsletter (Supporting your Capacity to Learn). Leave space for emotions big and small, positive and negative. As much as you can, simply observe your reactions and responses with curiosity and note or journal them. Holding yourself gently not only helps you get through the particular challenge but increases your awareness of how you respond, which you can reflect on later to learn and grow.

Please note: Many people have suffered from mental health issues as a result of the pandemic, including people who have never experienced issues before. This newsletter series is not a substitute for professional mental health support specific to your circumstances. If you have mental health issues, please access professional mental health services before attempting any of the practices in this newsletter series. Links to some Australian organisations and their online resources are below:

Beyond Blue
Black Dog Institute

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