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When Crisis Hits, Do These 5 Things

The choices you make in a crisis have a significant impact on the outcome.

Key points

  • The most resilient people are willing and able to access help and resources in a crisis.
  • In the midst of a crisis, pre-existing structures such as a job help a person keep going.
  • It's best to avoid knee-jerk, comfort-related choices in a crisis and instead choose actions to make one's life better.
Mohamed Hassan/Pixabay
Source: Mohamed Hassan/Pixabay

Are you going through a crisis in your life? It’s easy to feel like you’re spinning out of control, and that there’s nothing you can do to make it better. Sometimes it can feel so overwhelming that you just want to curl up in a ball and wait until it all goes away.

I recently published a new book, The Resilient Life: Manage Stress, Prevent Burnout, and Strengthen Your Mental and Physical Health. In the adapted excerpt below, I share some of the things I recommend you keep top of mind:

1. Let the people around you give to you, help you, and support you.

“Strong” people like me can be really proud; too proud and independent to ask for and receive help. It may seem impressive, but that type of pride doesn’t actually increase your resilience or your capacity to weather a crisis.

What does? Being willing (and able) to access, make use of, and receive resources that support you through a difficult time. Some of your most important resources are the people around you. This includes friends and family, and others in your community who may formally or informally be able to help.

Michael Ungar, one of the world’s leading researchers in resilience, writes in his book Change Your World: The Science of Resilience and the True Path to Success, “If one wants to be strong during a crisis, it’s best to invest in others before the crisis occurs.”

It’s important to invest in connections with good people as a key focus of your life. And when times get rough, don’t hesitate to reach out to friends and family, as well as new social connections or community resources, for help and support.

2. Protect your means to earn a living.

When I was younger and full of exuberance about all the possibilities that life could hold, I frequently encouraged people to follow their dreams. Nonetheless, as I followed my dreams of becoming a writer, coach, and speaker/educator, I was very careful to keep my medical license valid and up to date. Sure enough, in certain difficult seasons (such as the 2008 crash, when multiple sources of my non-clinical revenue dried up), I was very glad to still have it.

Obviously, not everyone has a medical license to lean on in hard times. But still, I advise young people to try to have a stable, reliable way to make income in difficult times, no matter what their dreams may be.

When crisis or tragedy broadsides your life, protect your work or your livelihood. When things are going well, nurture your work, your skills, your qualifications, and your ability to make an income carefully, so that it’s all there for you when things go sideways. Yes, sometimes circumstances are so difficult that you must take time off (or maybe lose your job), but keep working if you can, even if it’s really hard. Show up and do good work. Be responsible and reliable. Protecting your work can be the thing that gets you through a crisis, psychologically and financially.

You can additionally protect your financial health, and your ability to weather a crisis or disaster, by having appropriate insurance coverage, keeping your legal affairs in order, minimizing or eliminating debt, and building savings, such as a six-month emergency fund.

3. Draw strength from structure.

Structure in your life makes you more resilient. When life sends you spinning, it’s natural to want to chop away at your life and your responsibilities to create space to deal with or emotionally process the crisis. And for sure, there are times for that. I took a stress leave from my ER residency training when my burnout and depression had reached a crisis point. As a rule, though, don’t dismantle the structure of your life. Keep showing up and doing what you can, while simultaneously taking care of your needs. That structure is precious psychological and physical scaffolding that you need in difficult times.

4. Make choices that will make your life better, not worse, when the dust settles.

When things are really bad, you can easily justify “unhelpful” choices. Who wouldn’t be driven to drink? Would anyone blame you for living off of ice cream, chocolate, and cigarettes? The same goes for signing up for that dating (hookup?) app to distract yourself from a devastating breakup.

One of the best lessons I learned from the various unwanted crises I have experienced is that you should fight back against the terrible blows or events that life hands out by being ferociously committed to caring for yourself in those times. Be determined, with everything that’s in you, to not do things that you’ll regret. There are lots of things that might feel good or provide relief in the moment but will cause your life to spiral further down.

Ask yourself, “What would be the most useful thing, for myself and my life, that I could do right now?”

Choose to do something healthy, positive, or constructive with your negative energy. High-five yourself mentally when you do it.

5. Look after your health.

As an absolute priority, make time for the key building blocks of physical health and well-being in tough times. Make them the foundation of your days, as hard as it may be. Get enough sleep. Choose nutritious foods. Make sure you have healthy food in your house and eat three good meals a day. If you have to eat out, make it something healthy that vitalizes you. Even fast food places have “better” choices on their menu—choose those. These life-giving choices, made as often as possible, will help you to be restored, well-fueled, de-stressed, and energized, and far more able to deal with whatever it is you have to navigate.

© Copyright 2022 Susan Biali Haas, M.D.

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