The piercing shriek rang out in the still of the night. Every eyeball in the campsite was now wide open.
Then, the sound of a tent flap being quickly rezipped followed by the low urgent murmuring of voices suggesting that whatever had happened, the moment had passed, so we rolled over in our sleeping bags to drift back into slumber.
Ten minutes later we were woken again to the sound of cascading water descending from a great height. Had someone’s shower bag burst on the top of their car? Then another burst of water. Being out in the desert where every drop of water is more valuable than gold, the concern was that one in our group had lost precious water supplies.
All was quiet again until the chirruping of birds heralded dawn and my husband wandered off from the campsite for his early morning walk.
He hadn’t gone far when he came across a large bull camel sitting amidst the acacia with a couple of his harem close behind.
The possibility of being visited by camels at night hadn’t been mentioned in the Outback Driving Manual but the evidence was very clear judging by the number of camel prints in the red dirt. It appears that camels, like people, sometimes need to get up for a pee in the night. But I never knew a camel bladder could hold so much urine!
Dealing with the unexpected, like a snorting camel in the bush behind you at night when squatting for quick wee can invoke fear which is only allayed when you have enough data to make sense of it all.
While our brains crave certainty and familiarity, you know that we can’t predict everything that happens. You can examine emerging trends, but mostly we just carry on, busying ourselves with what needs to be done today.
Whenever I ask the question, “Did you ever foresee we might live through a pandemic in our lifetime?” The answer is invariably in the negative, though the smart alecs will say “No, but Bill Gates did!”
Gates did indeed warn us of the impending possibility. He examined the historical data and was concerned. But the rest of us didn’t listen and were caught off guard by the arrival of the novel virus Sars-Covid-2 and the ensuing global Covid 19 pandemic.
Unexpected situations worry us because they are unexpected!
They can’t be prepared for. Pilots can run stimulated practices for dealing with emergency events or you could join the Preppers to build your underground bunker in the event of a nuclear war but that’s different from knowing how you will handle the associated fear, stress and anxiety which will impact your ability to respond to the situation in the most effective way.
The stress response that causes us to fight, flee or freeze is an evolutionary tool that has helped keep us safe from danger, so we recognise when something different or extraordinary is taking place. Like a tsunami, earthquake, or accident.
The biggest, unexpected event over the last few years was the emergence of the novel Sars-Covid-2 virus that led to the Covid 19 pandemic.
So how does knowing this help us with those unexpected events at work?
Responding to the Spanner in the Works
1. Keep Calm and Carry On
This very British response to adversity is about taking a step back from the situation that is unfolding to appraise what’s really happening. Is it really as bad as you fear?
For example, that loud bang you just heard is more likely to be a car back-firing than a gun shot.
When you son rings you early in the morning to tell you his car won’t start, and he needs a lift to work now, you could fling yourself into your car in your nighty to save his day, or ask if one of his flatmates would be able to drop him off instead.
Panic and catastrophe thinking is unhelpful. You can’t think straight or make a sensible decision and you may find it hard to explain yourself to others.
Plus, panic is contagious.
You might not be that concerned if the car you’re travelling in has a flat tyre. But if your fellow passengers start panicking “We’ll miss our flight!” very soon you’ve joined in the merry throng of panic that may be completely unwarranted.
“Is anyone here a member of the RAC?”
2. Retain Hope and Realistic Optimism
You’ve just cleared the table when one of your dinner guests who is looking a little green around the gills asks, “Did you put chilli in the curry, because remember, I’m allergic?”
How could you possibly forget that previous episode where the addition of chilli resulted in you transporting the affected person to the emergency department?
That’s why you now carry an armoury of antihistamines and an EpiPen, in case. Now you are the superhero who has the experience and knowledge to respond appropriately and reassure those you are with that you have the capacity and ability to handle the situation easily and without fuss.
We don’t have all the answers to every challenge, but you may be with others who have a suggested solution. This is where staying positive helps to instil confidence that you will find a way, and everyone copes better as a result.
3. Be OK in asking for help.
Things go wrong, we stuff up and sometimes we fall flat on our face. But that doesn’t mean you have to deal with everything on your own. Having someone to talk to can make the biggest difference if you’re struggling with a heavy workload, are being bullied or harassed.
This is where a close friend, confidante or mentor can lighten your load. You might think you’re being a burden, but you’re not, and others are usually only too happy to help, because we’re all human.
4. Expect the Unexpected to Show Up
None of us can plan for every eventuality. Accepting this will help you tackle the next unforeseen event, and this can assist in evaluating what you might do if a similar situation occurs in the future.
Next time the motherboard on your computer goes belly up or your internet connection drops out just as you’re about to start that online exam, fret not. It’s time to contact your friendly IT consultant and know that you won’t be the first person they’ve helped to get out of the same predicament.
The more you get used to dealing with the unexpected, the less menacing it appears. There are even those who relish the challenge.
Meanwhile, when you’re next heading off into the Never-Never, don’t forget the unexpected will have packed their bag to come with you as well.
And look out for those camels.
Dr Jenny Brockis is a board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, keynote speaker, trainer and best-selling author. Her new book Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life (Wiley) is available for purchase.
If psychological safety, burnout prevention and mental wellbeing is something you’d like to find out more about, please contact me to set up a time for a chat.