Last October, my daughter and I took an all-day Wilderness Survival class where we learned basic survival techniques like, how to build a fire under any condition and how to build a shelter with only materials available in the surrounding environment. While I found these skill building lessons super useful (and fun), the one truly invaluable piece of advice I learned was how to “take a knee”.
See, when you’re hiking in the mountains and suddenly discover you’ve lost your way, and it’s beginning to get dark and the temperature is dropping, you’re first reaction is to panic. Panic is a response to fear- fear of injury or death. But, the irony is that panic puts you more at risk of harm, because your rational mind disappears, leading to irrational decisions that could just end up threatening your life. Hence, take a knee. Our instructors advised that when you first realize you’re lost, or otherwise unable to make it out of the woods, take a knee. Pause. Take a deep breath. Take stock of your surroundings and what tools you have available to you, both on your person and in the environment. Then, identify manageable, simple tasks that you can start on right away to improve your situation. If this isn’t an excellent metaphor for how to tackle all the difficult situations in our lives, I don’t know what is!
It has been my experience that people very rarely give themselves time to process information and make informed decisions, especially when confronted with unexpected circumstances. We, instead, immediately react (see my previous post on equanimity), as we have been conditioned to do in our high-tech world of video games and social media. A quick reaction time makes sense when you are being attacked by a bear in the wild — You either fight or flee. But, this doesn’t serve us well when we have to make more important, long range decisions, or even immediate, less important day-to-day ones. I had a teacher who used to tell me “if you don’t know what to do or say in any given situation, pause, and the answer will come.” This can be really uncomfortable, because we are often expected to act or respond immediately. Silence and inaction in many social situations can appear awkward. But, how many times have you said or done something you wish you hadn’t because you responded from a place of raw emotion, or were simply filling a void of silence, or because someone was waiting for a response you were not ready to give? How many times do you wish you had taken the proverbial knee?
Taking a knee, then, is really to pause and allow yourself the time to think something through. For my very sensitive, anxiety-prone daughter this is has been my go-to phrase when I see her begin to unravel emotionally. Together, we begin the four-step process outlined below:
HOW TO TAKE A KNEE:
- Pause– Stop what you are doing
- Take a deep breath
- Assess the situation– Is your life at risk? (Most likely, no) What are your options? What resources are available to help you?
- Assign simple tasks– What actions can you take to help yourself? Even taking a small step toward a solution can help tremendously in staving off the feeling of panic and helplessness. This small step might simply be removing yourself from the unhealthy, unproductive situation.
We have had to implement Take-A-Knee many times during the homework “witching hours” (after dinner to bedtime), when she is overwhelmed with the amount of work she has and the lack of perceived time she has to do it. When the tears begin to flow, I make her stop and take a deep breath first and foremost. I then propose the “worst-case scenario” test (assessing the situation). What would happen if everything didn’t get done? What if it wasn’t perfect? Is the world going to end? Are we going to love her less? No and no. And, we both know she is going to get it done, so what are the steps she can take to organize her time and streamline her studying? What resources does she have available to her? Once we formulate a plan, she begins with the first step and proceeds from there. Is it a perfect process? No, but it effectively breaks the panic and redirects her energy to a healthier, more productive path.
Not only is this an effective strategy for dealing with on-the-spot anxiety, but it can be used in countless other overwhelming situations, as well, including: arguments with others, financial distress, health-related issues, etc. When panic starts to rise, remember the mantra: Pause. Breathe. Assess. Act. And, most importantly, allow yourself the time to save yourself, whether literally or figuratively. Are there times when snap decisions are warranted and unavoidable? Sure. But, mostly not. So, when in doubt, Take a Knee: Pause. Breathe. Assess. Act.