Emotionally Intelligent People Refuse to Panic. Here’s What They Do Instead

For Captain Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III and the rest of the crew of US Airways flight 1549, January 15, 2009 started off as an ordinary day.

It was supposed to be a routine flight from New York City to Charlotte, similar to thousands of flights Sullenberger had flown previous.

But just minutes into the flight, catastrophe struck. A flock of geese collided with the plane, effectively destroying both engines and immediately endangering the lives of the crew and passengers on board, 155 people.

At this point, most people would panic. 

Against all odds, just 208 seconds after the engines were struck, Sullenberger and first officer Jeff Skiles landed the plane safely in the Hudson, next to midtown Manhattan. All 155 souls onboard survived, in the event that is now known as the “Miracle on the Hudson.”

Undoubtedly, Sullenberger, Skiles, and the rest of the crew felt fear in those pivotal moments after the bird strike.

But not one of them panicked.

The Miracle on the Hudson teaches a remarkable lesson in emotional intelligence–one that can help you at both work and at home. 

Control your thoughts

The dictionary defines panic as “sudden uncontrollable fear or anxiety, often causing wildly unthinking behavior.”

Fear is completely natural, and can be healthy when kept in balance. Panic, on the other hand, prevents reason and logical thinking. Most often, it paralyzes us, preventing us from taking needed action. Other times, it leads us to make a decision that we later regret.

In the case of flight 1549, Sullenberger and Skiles were faced with an extremely challenging problem, without much time to solve it. As they quickly ran through a series of emergency procedures, it became evident that they didn’t have the time or lift necessary to make it to any of the nearby airports. They needed to devise a plan, fast.

Captain Sullenberger’s decision to try landing in the Hudson was shocking, but it’s since been lauded as one of the greatest decisions in aviation history–and it resulted in saving everyone on board.

Sullenberger’s repeatedly stated that he’s not a hero, that the successful result of that day was the result of the collective efforts of all the crew on board. Of course this included their ability to avoid giving into panic.

But what can we learn from the events of that day?

Of course, those who frequently suffer from panic attacks (which involve symptoms like difficulty breathing, trembling, heart pounding, and profuse sweating) may need professional help. 

But what if you’re in the other group? You don’t experience panic often, but you fall victim to it at times. 

For example, have you ever experienced panic when: 

  • receiving unexpected news
  • getting lost
  • not receiving a response to a message (or not receiving a phone call)
  • losing your keys, wallet, or something else important
  • facing a difficult or dangerous situation
  • dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic

Any of these situations can be serious, and lead to a natural feeling of fear. But panicking only makes things worse.

So, how can you face your fears without panicking? 

Here’s where emotional intelligence comes in: You must learn to control your thoughts.

When that flock of birds struck the plane, Captain Sullenberger immediately felt a rush of adrenaline. “I’m sure that my blood pressure and pulse spiked,” Sullenberger relates. “But I also knew I had to concentrate on the tasks at hand and not let the sensations in my body distract me.”

Rather than allow himself to become paralyzed, Sullenberger first practiced self-awareness: He acknowledged his natural emotional and physical reaction. Doing this allowed him to then exercise self-management (self-control): He then focused his thoughts on what he needed to do to save those on board.

“Was this difficult to do?” an interviewer once asked Sullenbrger.

“No,” Sully replied. “It just took some concentration.”

Likely you won’t need to make an immediate decision that will mean life or death for 150 people. But you will face your own “emergency landing” scenarios. And your ability to demonstrate self-awareness and self-management can work to your benefit. It may even prove life-saving.

How do you develop self-awareness and self-management?

It all comes down to preparation. Just as Captain Sullenberger and his crew were well prepared for potential disaster, you can practice the techniques needed to keep your emotions under control.

These include techniques like:

So, remember: The next time you feel a wave of fear coming over your body, don’t panic. Instead, take a moment. Acknowledge your feelings. Accept the situation. 

Focus on the things you have control over (instead of wasting time thinking about the things you can’t control). Then, start moving forward.

Because it’s the ones who refuse to panic who end up saving the day.

(If you enjoyed this article, be sure to sign up for my free emotional intelligence course, where every day for 10 days, you get a rule designed to help you make emotions work for you, instead of against you.)

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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