Before we discuss what you can do to stay calm and focused in an emergency, let me tell you why it's important to stay calm and focused. When the body is under stress, it moves into survival mode, better known as the fight-or-flight syndrome. Under these conditions, the body prepares itself by overproducing the stress hormone cortisol. Then, cortisol goes to the brain and causes a slow-down in the process of the pre-frontal cortex, where you think critically and have your executive function. Therefore, the captain of your ship is no longer in control, and the amygdala, where the fight or flight syndrome and your emotions come from, gets larger and takes over the controls. Finally, the hippocampus, where your learning and memory are found, temporarily narrows.
So, you can see that, when faced with an emergency, you are biologically created to be reactive, rather than thoughtful or critical in your thinking. As a result, panic makes you behave in an emotional manner rather than a thoughtful manner, as you react emotionally to the danger facing you. Because you are no longer living in a primitive society where such impulsive and reactive behavior might save your life, you have to deliberately adjust your behavior to accommodate the kind of threat and emergency you are now encountering. And you are at a great disadvantage whenever you approach any emergency emotionally, rather than logically.
Therefore, to stay calm in the face of danger, it is important to not be reactive and deliberately find ways to keep calm. In fact, according to author Kevin Daum, race car drivers have a saying: "Slow in the cockpit equals fast on the track." Remember: the important tasks necessary for survival -- such as calling 911, stopping bleeding, giving CPR -- require you to remain cool. Children take their cues from their parents; if you stay calm, you subdue panic in general. I tell every parent that the most important thing to do to prepare their family for emergency situations is to practice and rehearse.
In my own family, when my children were young, we got little ladders that we kept in their bedroom and we taught them how to throw them out of their windows in case of a fire. We also told them exactly what to do: not to look back, to get out of the house, run away from the house, and not to worry or look for their parents, but go to a friendly neighbor for help. We taught them how to call 911 and from the age of two they knew their names, they knew their addresses and we taught them that, if mom or dad was incapacitated, to be able to dial the phone and tell the operator in age-appropriate and simple language, "mommy... sick... help..." or "daddy... sick ... help."
You can follow this approach with your own children. Moreover, you can also teach them stress reducing techniques that will help them keep calm in the midst of a storm. For example: rehearse counting to 10 with your children, teach them how to slow down their breathing, remembering that what you practice will become second-nature. Be prepared, and that means with asthma inhalers, EpiPens, emergency medication and the most important word in an emergency, after calm: focus, since most emergencies are time-relevant. When you teach your children how to meditate, when you teach your children how to pay attention through mindfulness, when you teach your children how to breathe, and teach them when overwhelmed by fear to take a step back and focus on their heartbeat, you are teaching them how to stay calm in the middle of chaos. However, these techniques have to be regularly practiced and rehearsed before an actual event, so that they can be called upon when needed.
Some relaxation techniques which can help both you and your children in case of an emergency include:
A quick progressive relaxation which only takes a minute, of squeezing and releasing all the muscles in the body isometrically and simultaneously, three times, will reduce stress in the body and immediately relax you.
Breathing. Simply taking a minute to breathe in to the count of three, hold to the count of three, and breathe out to the count of three, repeated three times, while saying and focusing each time on the word "relax" will automatically calm the mind.
Create a visualization. Close your eyes for one minute and focus your mind on some calming cue, for example, a place that you go to relax... a beach... the mountains... and hold that image three times to the count of three. This will reduce your blood pressure, lower your heart rate and reduce stress.
A simple Chi Gong body movement, which can be downloaded for free on my website, practiced three times, will focus the body, as well as open up frozen and blocked stress points. This will immediately take the edge off while settling the body down, as it put you in touch with your physical self and helps you focus, realizing that your body is your own instrument and performs at its best when integrated with your mind.
And most importantly, remember your children are watching you. If you are in control of your emotions, you will transfer that calm to your children. And by following your clear directions, your children will lower their own anxiety and gain a sense of control.
In the final analysis, parents and children alike, need to practice and rehearse routinely calming techniques that can't be learned on the spot, but can become part of you. Being prepared, staying focused, and having a plan that has been internalized, automatically will lower stress and keep you calm in emergency situations.