Clinical Psychologist specialising in
Emotional Intelligence and Mindfulness

Mindfulness + Surviving My Worst Nightmare By Claire Derry

“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another”.

William James


Mindfulness is becoming an increasingly hot topic in the media and in the corporate world with many large organisation incorporating mindfulness into leadership programmes. I have found it useful in my work as a coach and facilitator to tell my own personal story of how mindfulness enabled me to cope with a crisis.

3 years ago my son went missing while on a gap year in the Australian Outback. I had the dreaded 5 am knock on the front door, to be confronted by 2 uniformed police officers, telling me that I needed to ring the Foreign Office. This was the beginning of 4 days of acute stress and anxiety that I will never forget. Looking back at what helped me through my worst nightmare was my ability to maintain self-control and to focus on what I could influence. A year previously, thanks to The Haven Charity, I attended a mindfulness based stress reduction course, to help deal with breast cancer. This, and my training in leadership and emotional intelligence as an executive coach, gave me the tools I needed in my moment of crisis.

As the drama of my son’s misadventure hit the world media, I decided that the easiest way to deal with the situation was to think how I would coach someone through a dilemma like this. Stephen Covey’s spheres of influence and concern came to mind. Focus on what you can influence not on the concern and by so doing the concern will reduce. I could do very little from the UK to have an impact on the situation, So I needed to build strong relationships with the people on the ground organising the search for him. As a coach, I had often taught others that people are your greatest assets. Now, more than ever, I needed the Police and Rescuers to feel they knew me and could empathise with Sam’s plight. I needed to build strong emotional connections with people who could go out and look for him. I wanted them to know the type of person Sam was. These relationships would be key to Sam’s survival and I had to develop a line of communication between us that was easy for them. I also used social media to reach out to other influencers such as Richard Branson and members of the English and Australian rugby team. Of all the EI skills I coach, optimism was the most important as it linked crucially to self-control. I knew that worrying and thinking the worst could serve no useful purpose and would turn me into an emotional wreck.

On that long flight to Australia my challenge was to manage my fear. So as soon as my thoughts drifted to the fear of him not surviving, I redirected them to a more constructive focus using my mindfulness practice. I had over 20 hours on that airplane during which time I used the mindful body scan and meditation to keep me calm, and focused in the present moment. By focusing on my breathing and relaxation techniques I found an inner strength I did not realise I had. I focused on a successful outcome, anything else was unthinkable. I reminded myself that he was young, extremely fit and strong minded in an emergency. I remembered my own father and how he had survived during the war in enemy territory. Sam had many of his qualities. I drew strength from him and tried to model my behaviour on how he would have acted.

I focused on what I would do when he was found and not on the negative emotions. I allowed this optimism to plan the happy conclusion to our story and how we would deal with it. I felt humbled by the sacrifices made by all those people who were searching for him. I felt sincere gratitude for what they were doing; Police, searchers, and rescue organisations. I planned the letters we would write and how else we might show our gratitude once he was found. I only focused on a positive outcome.

I was reminded of these events by two things in the publication of Martyn Newman’s The Mindfulness book. This is an excellent little book on how to keep the mind focused and peaceful in order to deal with life’s challenges. Martyn has been instrumental in my career both in training me as an EI coach and helping me develop my mindful practice. But most importantly by Sam achieving his lifelong dream of becoming a Royal Marine, something that so very nearly didn’t happen.


Claire Derry is a Business & Executive coach who specialises in developing companies, executing sales and marketing strategies, aligning culture, developing Emotional Intelligence skills and building great and effective teams. Visit Claire’s website here