Marie Taylor unpicks the hallmarks and lays out practical tips you and your team can take
When our environment seems to change every day, never more so than in the midst of a pandemic, there is more potential than ever for people to be tipped into a state of crisis – and there are any number of things that can be the cause.
It might be a mental health crisis, identity crisis, an accident, a lawsuit, a family disruption or the loss of a job or loved one.
Crises can also be caused by positive experiences too. Most people would consider the birth of a child to be a blessing, or a marriage to be a time of joy. But sometimes that can initiate a crisis too.
In this article, we will explore the steps you can take in a crisis and the route to turn it around.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE ARE FACED WITH A CRISIS
When crisis strikes, there are a number of states we go through as we try to process what is happening. These include some of the following…
The first thing that happens is a person goes into a state of shock. People report a sense that things are surreal. They experience the feeling life is turning into a movie they are watching. They also experience a brain fog and thinking becomes difficult.
Shock is a difficult thing to describe. It’s the feeling of stasis and the more you resist the worse it gets.
Some crises, though, don’t allow for the luxury of sitting still, particularly if it involves immediate danger. We’ll consider a four-step plan to tackle these circumstances later.
But if you are not under immediate threat, the way to deal with that initial shock is through stillness.
The body needs an intense amount of focused presence and stillness in order to deal with the flood of hormonal chemicals that put you into fight, flight or freeze mode.
It’s not possible, in that state, to deliver sound judgement and objective decision-making. So when you’re in shock, you’ll need to resist all your urges and powerfully do nothing.
This is a self-preservation strategy. You may succumb to knee-jerk reactions and follow a pattern of behaviour that worked successfully at some point in the past.
A person who has learned the best way to defend themselves is to fight back will immediately get defensive, agitated, and will get into more fights and disagreements.
A person who has learned to take responsibility is going to react by immediately blaming themselves. When we are reacting, we are not accepting what’s happening. We are proactively resisting and trying to come out of the crisis situation unscathed. This resistance, or refusal, to accept makes it a time of extreme frustration, anger and heightened anxiety.
If you find yourself in that moment of reactivity, the most effective way through it is to recognise that it is happening. There is an intense polarisation between the part of you that’s trying to protect yourself and that which is trying to mitigate or minimise.
An obsession with the ‘meaning’ of a crisis is still a version of a refusal to accept what has happened.
It rests on the belief that if you could fully understand it you could in some way prevent or mitigate the consequences. When searching for meaning you’ll become obsessed with finding out the truth (the could’ve, should’ve, would’ve).
In this phase you’re going to want to tell your story as many times as you can so you can grasp the meaning of it. If you don’t feel like you have a confidante to talk to, writing it out or keeping a journal instead is the next best option. It’s also a time when people start bargaining: Maybe if I can change my bad habits? Maybe if I can do better? This is an attempt to understand and therefore gain control over the experience that’s making you feel so out of control.
Acceptance and processing
Accepting is different to what most people think. You start to realise that once you can’t prevent something, you can only take proactive steps from where you are now. You are also accepting that it involves some degree of pain.
To accept does not mean to like! When swallowing the reality and validity of something, typically people start confronting their feelings of powerlessness relative to the situation. Once acceptance occurs, and a person levels with the reality of what’s happening, defence mechanisms start to diminish.
A person focuses less on the story, and trying to understand, and mentally switches to what they can do about it now. They also start to let go of what doesn’t make sense to hold onto anymore. What can I do with what I have now?
When the world takes all the cards and throws them up in the air, the reorienting phase is when they get organised in a whole new form.
This is the critical phase when re-imagining a “new normal”. It’s the finding of a new sense of direction, deciding which cards you’re going to play next, and this phase is the most fun!
Even though when you look back you’ll see this phase was difficult, you’ll also see how it made more of instead of taking away from you.
HOW TO MOVE THROUGH THESE PHASES
It’s critical to understand these phases and how to move through them relative to a crisis. If any of them are resisted you could get stuck.
Some people do get stuck in long-term shock. They get stuck retelling their story, or trying to find the meaning phase, so they never reach a place where, deep down, they accept what has happened.
This is why all the mainstream mental health campaigns encourage people to talk and be open about what’s going on for them.
What this means is we have to face any resistance to any of these phases, allow them to occur, and relax in the knowledge that whatever phase we are in right now, it will pass.
But you can’t skip a step.
The good news is you are hard wired to survive a crisis and you will get through it. The concept of thriving in a crisis is a concept you use so that whatever you face becomes woven into the tapestry of who you are becoming. It needs to add instead of diminishing you.
HOW TO REACT BEST IN A CRISIS WHERE YOU NEED TO RESPOND IMMEDIATELY
Once you’re out of immediate danger these four steps are the first to take. Please note, if you are in danger you won’t get this ‘right’. Mistakes will be made and that’s OK.
Diaphragmatic breathing: take breaths as deep as you can. This means breathing into your lower back, filling up to the bottom of your rib cage. This helps you mitigate panic, because panic stops you from prioritising well.
Get the situation under control: prioritise people over property and call emergency teams depending on the crisis you find yourself in.
Analyse: What happened, what happens now, and what happens next? Have you experienced anything like this before? What did you learn then that you can use now? What can you do in the next minutes, hours, and weeks? Think through any unintended consequences of a course of action you decide to take now. There may be a domino effect.
Act in alignment with your values. In a crisis everyone wants relief. This can mean the desire for relief causes you to look at things that don’t align with what is important to you. You may compromise your ideals or the things you value.
Stick to your morals and conscience and only take actions now that won’t keep you up at night in the future. If in doubt choose the moral high ground.
PUTTING YOURSELF IN A POSITION TO RESPOND WELL
Leadership and your ability to thrive in a crisis is built upon being able to regulate emotionally. In a crisis, that means lowering your stress response in the situation you’re in so you begin functioning from your rational objective mind and using your intuition.
All crises have an element of surprise. You are hard wired to react so you can’t stop it unless you are aware of it.
Practice noticing when you are reacting. If you resolve the reaction you are having internally, this lowers stress and allows you to respond better.
Three ways to reduce reaction:
- 1. Breathe in for two counts, hold for four, out for eight, and no breath for two before you repeat the process.
2. Seek out deep touch – squeeze your forearm and/or your ankle. This calms the overall charge in your nervous system. You can also grab a blanket and wrap it tight. This sense of containment is a way the nervous system tries to naturally sedate and bring down stress chemicals. Bringing the knees to the chest also has the same effect.
3. Create resources for yourself.
a)Train yourself to have good sleep: Regularly playing the same piece of music or calming sounds, just before you go to sleep, will train the unconscious part of the mind (associated with learning and behaviour change) that these sounds signal it’s time to be sleep. After a short time, your brain will automatically associate the sounds with calmness and sleep and become a tool if insomnia strikes.
b) Explore: While you’re planning your response, look at the recipe or ingredients that constitutes the crisis with which you are dealing. What’s the expectation that’s been unfulfilled or what’s the attribute of the unsuccessful communication?
If these options fail to create calm, it could be you have a deeper unconscious wound from the past that this latest crisis is triggering. In these circumstances a therapist or coach can help you overcome this. They use techniques that help you efficiently but gently move forward.
When you’re faced with a crisis, get anything unnecessary off your plate. If the crisis is in your club, focus on what you can do right now (and delegate the rest). But take one thing at a time. Practice taking things off your plate:
What can you do to stop thinking about it?
What goals can you put on the back burner?
What daily chores or activities could you pause or remove from the to-do list?
What appointment can you cancel?
What have you said yes to that you need to back out of?
Now list things that require your focus. For some, this will include daily exercise. For others, doing daily exercise will feel like pressure. This list will be unique to you and will change as you move through your situation.
Marie J. Taylor is Communications Executive at the GCMA, a life coach and a Master Practitioner of NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) and Time Line TherapyTM.
If you are in a crisis, or if you or any other person is in danger, you can get immediate help from:
Samaritans – Whatever you’re going through, a Samaritan will face it with you. 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Call free on 116 123.
Or call emergency services on 999.