Keep Calm & Carry On - a guide to keeping your cool when shit hits the fan

Picture this: I am sitting in my economy seat at the back of small plane. Due to weather, air traffic delays and the general chaos that is air travel, we are remain sitting, unmoving, on the tarmac in New York despite the fact that should have landed in Toronto by now. In the row in front of me a (rather loud and expressive) man is quite literally losing his shit because of this delay. I can’t recall the exact details of his ranting, but essentially he was complaining over and over about how inconvenient this delay was, how he was going to be so behind on whatever meetings/business/emails he had ahead of him, and was blaming the airline for making us get on the plane so early when we had been sitting on the tarmac for about an hour.

Beside me another student sat and calmly called her mother, explaining the delay and her realisation that she would miss her connection back to college that night. Did she raise her voice, rant or rave? No. She simply kept her mum updated on our progress so that she could rearrange her flights and ensure that she got the first one tomorrow. Similarly, I sat wondering if I would make my connection back to Montreal, let alone the neuroscience mid-term test I had the following day. I was extremely tired, probably hungry, travelling alone and without any way or person to contact.

What was the difference between the aggravated man in front of us and myself and the girl beside me? It wasn’t our circumstances (bar a few individual variations of pressing things to be done/places to go), but our attitudes. You see, in situations like these there is usually very little you can do to change it. You can’t magically make the bad weather go away, or cause the 25 aircrafts ahead of you in the queue to evaporate so that you can take off. In these situations essentially the only thing you have control over is your own attitude and actions in response to the situation (however frustrating or inconvenient it may be).

Recently, a similar flight delay resulted in Peta and I boarding a flight 5 hours after we were meant to. Due to crazy weather in New Zealand flights all over the eastern side of Australia, the Pacific and NZ had been majorly delayed, and as a result the flight crew on our plane had come in on their day off just to get us home safely. Bless them. But this didn’t stop one disgruntled passenger complaining loudly about the fact that she had been seated across the aisle, and not directly next to, her husband. Mind you, Peta and I were in the exact same situation. After mouthing off to a likely exhausted air hostess, who could honestly do nothing to change the situation (the flight was packed), the lady seemingly calmed down.

The point of all these stories is that you have the power to control your words and actions in these situations, and not cause yourself (or others) unnecessary stress or anguish. Here are a few little tips to keeping calm when shit really does hit the fan (or at least when your flight gets delayed, but they are universal strategies):


This may seem kind of obvious, but when you realise your carefully curated plans are rapidly disappearing down the drain under a mountain of factors out of your control, panic can be quick to strike. When you start to feel those feelings of anxiety, stress or panic rising up in your body (chest, stomach), just take a moment to breathe deeply. It is physiologically impossible to have a stress response at the same time as you are belly breathing (i.e. breathing deeply). Taking a few deep breaths also creates some space between you finding out and processing the bad/inconvenient news/shit and your reaction, thereby allowing you to avoid purely reacting from instinct (which, I would guess, is where the crazy reactions people have come from). So when shit hits the fan, take 5 deep breaths, clear your mind and then proceed to calmly tackle (or accept) the situation.

Be realistic

Often in these types of situations it is all too easy to forget that most, if not all, the metaphorical “shit” is out of your control. You didn’t ask for it, you didn’t create it and you probably can’t fix it (alone). So be realistic when you find yourself in a sticky situation and ask yourself honestly “Is there anything I can do to make this better?”. If the answer is yes, then calmly (like the grown adult you are) go and do those things. If the answer is no, then you just have to sit tight and accept you have to ride out the storm.

Also, keep in mind that it may be entirely possible that there may be nothing else anyone else can do to change this situation. After all, the lady that works at the airline service desk is not an aircraft engineer, nor can she wave a magic wand and make that cyclone disappear. So don’t take your frustration out on her, she’s done nothing to deserve that.

Remember: this too shall pass

In the vein of acceptance, a great quote to keep handy and repeat when you find yourself in the middle of a potentially nightmarish situation is “this too shall pass.” This little mantra works for both positive and negative experiences, but particularly when you find yourself in some kind of limbo or delay situation, or really any kind of sticky life situation. Nothing is permanent, and you know deep down that whatever is currently going on will come to an end. Even with the most enormous delays (for example), airlines will do everything to keep your warm and fed until your flight can eventually get underway. You will eventually get home/to your destination, so just sit tight and repeat: this too shall pass.

Make plans

Sometimes, despite our best planning, researching and disaster-proofing, life loves to chuck us a really nasty curve ball. In the grand scheme of things this curve ball is probably just a miniscule bump in the journey of life, but at the time it can seem insurmountable. Before making plans, follow steps 1-3 carefully – breathe, be realistic and accept the things that you cannot change. Then, and only then, you can move on to ‘damage control’. If you are with someone else this is best done as a conversation where you calmly work through every possible outcome of your situation and come up with the best solutions. By preparing for every possibility you give yourself a head start on cleaning up any mess created by the shit hitting the fan. Then, as the situation changes you can simply take any reasonable action steps in accordance with your pre-prepared plans A through Z. Of course, there will be situations in which making plans may be literally impossible, in which case I suggest you go back to step 3.

Well, there you go, my over-simplified but hopefully handy guide to keeping calm in any situation. Because of the examples I had in mind this post focussed a lot on air travel-type situations, but this model is far broader and can be adapted and applied to almost any kind of “shit-hitting-the-fan” situation that life can throw your way. I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that these things happen, it’s an inevitable part of life, but you can remain a calm and poised person simply by choosing to react in such a way.

Keep calm & carry on, friends!

Erica x