Captain Sullenberger: Heroes and Lessons Learned

Bravery and humility – often at the heart of fairy tales – are qualities that can inspire all of us to be the best that we can be. And, with the doom and gloom of the economic crisis, we were primed and about ready for a miracle. People want to feel hopeful again.

Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III safely landed a US Airways flight 1549 with 155 passengers and crew onboard in the Hudson River when the plane encountered problems after takeoff. Everyone survived. A spokesman for the U.S. Airline Pilots Association says that Sullenberger acted ‘very calm and cool, very relaxed, just very professional.’ Apparently he was the last one off the plane, walking down the aisles two times to make sure no one was left on board. Now that’s a hero. The challenges you face and crises you endure may not be quite so dramatic. But there are lessons we all can learn from the passengers and crew who stayed calm and pulled together on that Airbus A320 flight:

1. Realize that support is a valuable tool. Reaching out to others when you need encouragement helps you make it through what seems like an impossible situation. In an emergency, hold out your hand to a stranger. Confide in friends and family as you work through difficult circumstances. Getting a second and objective opinion from a family therapist or life coach will provide you with insight and direction. Join an ongoing group or attend a weekend retreat to share concerns and gain new perspective. Or find a workshop through your local university extension or mental health center. Spending time with others will validate your emotions and make you feel better.

2. Express your gratitude often. One airplane passenger, on a rescue raft in the frigid cold, went up to Sullenberger, grabbed his arm and said ‘thank you on behalf of all of us.’ Those are the moments in life that create a lasting impression. Try it yourself. Say thank you to a family member, a friend or a colleague. You’ll see that others will feel more valued and you’ll benefit from putting your appreciation into words. Studies show that gratitude helps you attain a better mood, increased self-esteem and a greater sense of connection to the world.

3. Develop stress relievers. If you have endured an extraordinary physical or emotional experience, take time out for yourself. By regular exercise, good nutrition and proper rest, you’ll be taking better care of your body. Attend to your mind and your spirit as well. Practice techniques of deep breathing, relaxation or your own form of meditation. Set aside quiet time and do what it is that gives you personal pleasure. Relax and have fun as you bring more balance into your life. Look at it as investing in your emotional bank account. You’ll generate positive memories that you can draw on when you need them.

4. Recognize an acute stress reaction. After an event where you could have died, it’s natural to have a greater appreciation for life. Subsequent to a traumatic event, on the other hand, an immediate emotional reaction can turn into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This is more likely to occur for those who have suffered a previous trauma, a weak support system, a history of addiction or depression. If your symptoms persist – sleep disturbance, sadness, fears, irritability, flashbacks or nightmares – don’t hesitate to make an appointment with a mental health professional.

5. Be as prepared as possible ahead of time. Sullenberger was ready – he’s a former air force fighter pilot, an expert in safety reliability methods and has 40 years of flying experience. Although you may not need training for an emergency landing, you can be equipped for what lies ahead. If you’re making an important presentation at work, setting guidelines for your kidult who can’t find a job and is moving back home or talking to your dad about giving up the car keys, learn as much as you can about the issues. Research the subject, write out talking points, get feedback from those whose opinions you value.

As you look back, how have you dealt with trauma in the past? And how has this changed you? Take the specific strategies that you learned and apply the most effective ones again and again. Look at the ways you can continue to build on your internal and external strengths. A double bird strike disabling two engines is a highly improbable set of circumstances. Yet there are many extraordinary situations we cannot predict. Hopefully you won’t ever have to brace for a crash landing. But being prepared never hurt anyone.

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