Photo credit: http://www.goalcast.com
Residents businesses in Hong Kong have been severely affected by first, the protest actions in HK and then by the Corona Virus outbreak. These two challenges continue to cause high levels of stress and anxiety amongst leaders and employees alike. As a coach, I often help clients deal with adversity in their lives, teaching them techniques to handle stress and build resilience.
My motto of “live like a coach” – reminds me to use the knowledge and skills of coaching in my own life. A recent adverse experience put that motto to the test and required me to apply my skills and expertise in coaching under extreme conditions in order to cope and survive. Upon reflection I realise that surviving this adverse situation was no coincidence. It was thanks to the application of a few life skills learnt through coaching, my studies in psychology, and my military training, of 25 years ago. It served as a confirmation of the value of the coaching principles and skills I practice and believe in. I am sharing my story in the hope that it may be of value to those dealing with adversity in their daily life.
On a recent business trip, I was wrongfully detained and deported from a country due to “visa issues”. My challenge started when the customs official decided that I did not meet the visa requirements to enter the country. I knew that I was legal and was very certain that they were wrong, but when I heard the words, “Please come with us,” my stomach turned, and anxiety started filling my mind. I was taken to a room where I was not allowed to use my phone, preventing me from contacting the outside world. Two hours later I was informed that I was refused entry to the country and that I would be deported. I was immediately escorted to a detention room where my personal possessions, my phone, my watch, and even my shoelaces, were confiscated. I was placed in a windowless room with 10 other people waiting deportation. I was given no reason for my detention and no information as to the planned duration, next steps etc. All my requests for legal assistance were denied.
Ten hours later I was marched out to the departure gate and put onboard a plane back home. This experience is definitely better than some of the people featured in “Banged up Abroad” but was still a severely traumatic experience to me. I have identified the following skills and techniques that I used to survive my ordeal:
Having a clear goal in mind and remaining committed to it
I decided early on that my main goal was to get out alive and return home safely with or without delivering the training for my client. This focussed my mind and helped me to make sensible decisions while my emotions tumbled around inside me and thoughts of disaster filled me with panic and offering extreme solutions. Most importantly, having this goal helped me to remain hopeful.
Once in the detention room, I realised that there was nothing I could do. After more than 20 hours of flying I was jet lagged and tired, sleep became my first priority. Equally important was eating the food provided for me so I could sustain my fading energy levels. Lastly, it was important not to squander mental energy on thoughts that did not support me.
As a neurotic personality (see my article on neuroticism here), I am still amazed at how calm and focussed I was during the whole ordeal. I practised mindfulness-based techniques that I frequently teach my clients. Mindfulness made me focus on the “here and now” and took my focus away from scary pictures of the future or unproductive thoughts about the past (what I should have done or could have done differently) that could adversely affect me. My mind was full of fearful and anxious ideas and thoughts. I kept playing the same scenario over and over again, blaming myself for not dealing with the situation more effectively, e.g. not being more assertive or persuasive. Mindfulness helped me to notice and “allow” thoughts that were enticing me towards fear and despair, noticing them and not acting on them. After a while I was able to identify those thoughts when they emerged and refocus my attention on my main goal of staying alive. The thoughts repeatedly returned, and I was able to be aware of them and allow them to be in my mind without allowing them to impact my, goals, actions and motivation.
Another technique I employed, especially when the anxiety was intense, was to slow down my breathing – similar to pranayama that is taught in yoga practice. Slowing down my breathing to about 6 or 8 breaths per minute combined with mindfulness, calmed me down and helped to maintain my focus in the present moment. This practice reduced my heart rate and gave me a sense of inner peace and calmness. I did this a a lot during my time in detention!
When I felt hopeless and powerless (which was almost constantly), I practised a self-talk technique taught to Navy Seals and high-performance athletes. It entails using positive affirmations in the second person. Instead of saying “I can make it”, I said “you can make it”, “you are stronger than you think”, and so on. Although I was sceptical when I had first read about this, I was very surprised at how well it worked in reality, and in adversity.
I’m happy to report that I made it home safely and although the ordeal has impacted me psychologically, I’m surprised at the level of resilience I experienced in that situation. The techniques I have described helped me in powerful ways that I had not anticipated, and I’m sure they contributed to keeping me alive and well. I’m sure that these skills may also be useful when facing extreme uncertainty, disruption or other adverse conditions in our lives and our work.
Feeling grateful and thankful
As I emerged from this situation, I experienced a letting go of my need for control and am thankful that I survived a stressful situation, that could have turned out much worse. At the same time, I experienced deep sense of my feet being grounded, an awareness of my personal resilience and drive, and energy. The self-talk in my head now says, “if you can survive that, you can achieve anything”.
I would like to thank my amazing team at HCC and everyone else who helped to get me home safe and sound. My team at home not only created miracles behind the scenes but also bonded even more to deliver like a high-performance team.