On a recent family holiday to Outback Australia we experienced bad luck. What surprised me was my response to an emergency situation and how the principles of positive psychology helped me deal with a very stressful situation.
We had experienced the beauty and awe of central Australia and were driving between destinations with a six hour drive ahead. With limited services along the way or mobile phone coverage we stopped at a roadhouse, fuelled up and ordered a Dairy Free burger for my son who is allergic to dairy. This was not the wisest choice as unfortunately it was not free of dairy after all. That was my first failure.
Ten minutes later, my son suffered an anaphylactic reaction on a remote road. We had no phone coverage and another 200 kilometres until our next destination. Packing only 1 EpiPen for the trip could have been seen as our second failure. Or not investigating if we required a satellite phone may have been our third? But in the emergency, I chose not to focus on the failures, but used a more helpful thinking style and looked for the opportunities that arose from the challenge. Here is what I learnt about building resilience:
It matters to me: My deep concern for my son’s welfare motivated me to rise to the challenge. Angela Duckworth defines Grit as having two parts – Passion (my motivator) and Perseverance. Rather than panic and give up, I needed to find ways to solve the problem. I knew my son had experienced allergic reactions before and we had managed those, so I knew we had the skills to follow the necessary steps again. This time, however, we were not close to a hospital, so we needed to be hopeful that we could put procedures in place to get us to the hospital in time.
Stop and Breathe: Taking some deep breaths to slow down my bodies reaction to stress, enabled me some time to stop, focus and think clearly before proceeding. I was able to recognise we were all anxious but I needed to consider all options in a logical way and keep an eye on the time.
Take notice: Being fully focussed on the current situation, I tuned into closely observing my son's symptom and reactions. I noted the time of day, the distance from the roadhouse and how long it would take to drive to the next stop where the nearest hospital was located. I noticed his blocked nose, itchy eyes, swollen face and shallow breathing, but he was able to talk. Yes – a severe reaction but I felt grateful he was conscious and able to breathe even if that was somewhat restricted.
Seek supportive relationships: I was very fortunate to be travelling with my husband, and we worked brilliantly as a team. As we both cared for our son, we discussed options and were able to support each other and felt closely connected.
Play to your strengths: My strengths of curiosity and love of learning are Wisdom strengths which meant I was able to be curious about the situation and remote environment and use this knowledge wisely to know I needed to get help from a local expert to find out if we should be travelling 200kms forward or down a different road I was unaware of. So we turned around and drove back to the roadhouse to seek assistance and get back into phone range.
Consider the options and make decisions: My son’s condition was worsening and we needed to use the EpiPen. This brought instant relief to our son and we were thankful for the wonderful research gone into allergy medicines. This was the first step of moving towards our goal of getting my son well.
Be open to options and alternatives: Dialling 000 enabled us to speak directly to a doctor who assessed the situation, considered the options available to us and despatched an ambulance to meet us on the road to the next large town. Within 5 minutes we were back on the road, with no phone reception, a sick child and driving towards an ambulance driving in the opposite direction with flashing lights and paramedics at hand would rendezvous with us. We estimated a meeting point 100kms down the lonely road.
Stay alert and watch out for bumps in the road: Although the drive was lonely and remote, we did meet a lively Kangaroo that jumped out in front of our car. We hit the brakes and narrowly missed him.
Acknowledge the small wins along the way: There were lots of smiles in our car when we saw the flashing lights of the ambulance coming towards us. The paramedics made us all feel safe as they instantly connected with our son and we trusted them and their equipment.
Connect to something bigger: We met wonderful paramedics and warm and caring health care workers including ER nurses, doctors and other hospital staff. The kindness of the lady who offered me a meal and cleared away my tray, the nurse who recommended some good dairy free dining options in town, all helped to boost my positive emotions and made me feel part of a caring community. I felt well cared for by this hospital community.
What did I learn?
My journey into the outback was filled with amazing natural beauty but also an opportunity to build my skills of resilience, grit and optimism. Studying positive psychology has taught me the power of healthy thinking styles and that the only thing a person can control is their thoughts and emotions. Our bad luck turned into good luck, but more importantly, I was able to use the skills I have learnt about how to train my brain to be realistically optimistic, see challenges as opportunities to grow and learn rather than feel overwhelmed and helpless.
And next time, I think we will take 2 Epi Pens and encourage my son to only eat prepacked foods that clearly label all ingredients whilst stopping in remote locations off the grid.