Mindfulness in Emergency Situations

Does Mindfulness help in really tough situations?

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I had an experience today which gave me clear insight into the benefits of learning mindfulness, and self-compassion techniques.

I was travelling by train to London, when a fellow passenger collapsed, unconscious as he was leaving the train.  I was in a distant carriage, but as the call went up for medical assistance, I hurried down the platform escorted by a worried looking station manager.  I’ve been a GP for sixteen years, but in all honesty I have always found emergency situations very stressful.  I’ve loved being the kind of GP that wants to understand your fears and struggles, and I’ve had a keen eye for diagnosis, but I’ve tended to over-identify with the emotion of life and death scenarios.  In the past my pulse rate has rapidly increased, I’ve felt as if I’m moving too slowly, and my brain feels like it has tunnel vision.  This is a classic “fight, flight, freeze” response to stress hormones entering my bloodstream.  I’ve probably seemed ok to those around me, but I haven’t felt I functioned as well as I could.

Today however was different.  For the past four years I’ve been learning and practising mindful self-compassion techniques.  One of the benefits of these techniques is the ability to self-soothe “in the moment”.  This allows you to observe your thoughts and emotions without being caught up in them, and to tone down the stress response allowing clear and creative thinking. I remembered to breathe, but also quite without conscious thought, the months of practice allowed my mind to stay calm and objective. 

On reaching the scene, I found a heroic member of the public, a retired nurse and a student nurse, all performing CPR on a collapsed man.  I was able to see that we didn’t have good airflow, I quickly discovered there was no defibrillator available, and I joined them in taking team roles.  We supported each other in counting chest compressions, swapping to avoid fatigue, maintaining a clear airway, and getting help from those around us.  I was able to observe the scene and feel compassion for the collapsed man’s situation, without being swept away by fear.  I communicated encouragement to my fellow team members, and I felt so much gratitude for their courage in trying so hard to save a life.  It was not an easy scenario but I felt calm and focused.

Eventually we were joined by a whole fleet of paramedics and the air ambulance, and we stepped back to let them take charge.  They were so professional and we were grateful for their expertise and gadgets!  It was hard to step away, not knowing the outcome, but we thanked each other and checked everyone was alright, before leaving to find our replacement train.  It was overcrowded, and as I stood quietly absorbing what had just happened, a nearby passenger brought me a bar of chocolate.  I felt flooded with gratitude that in situations of horror and tragedy humans connect, support and reach out to one another.  Kindness is a wonderful thing!

Now, in my hotel room, as I find it hard to sleep, I’m letting my emotions flow.  I’m shedding a tear for a life possibly lost, not judging myself for crying, but rejoicing in the fact that mindful self-compassion has brought me back to a better version of me.  Calmer, clearer, more grateful for small things, and ready to feel the pain and joy of life.

Nicola Harker

Coach and Mentor (ex-doctor) and teacher of Self-Compassion, Nicola Harker Coaching

Using neuroscience, self-compassion techniques and coaching as well as high-performance techniques I help my clients free their potential and get back to their true selves so that they can thrive in life.


Go to the profile of Clare Cremona
over 3 years ago

Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful story Nicola and your vulnerability within it, truly wonderful xx

Go to the profile of Hanna Lambert
over 3 years ago

Another great article, Nicola.  Thank you for sharing - I'm still very much learning that skill of trying to observe emotions without getting too wrapped up in them.  It definitely takes practice!