Getting through the first days of a crisis isn’t something you can prepare for, and emergencies don’t typically offer warning. In an instant, your life can be turned upside down, and coping isn’t always easy. Whether it’s a professional crisis or a personal one, extreme stress is going to be part of the territory, and this can be particularly tough when you are in shock, and feeling overwhelmed.
Here are 6 steps to getting through the first days of a crisis:
1. Slow it down: Your thinking and your expectations, that is. Rather than engaging your racing mind (and risking a flash into panic), gently bring your thoughts back to what is ahead of you, right now. Your mantra: One. Step. At. A. Time.
2. Identify the most important have-to’s and limit yourself to these items in order to stay productive. It’s easy to get spun up in thinking about all that has to be done, and inadvertently working yourself into a paralyzed fear. This won’t help you. Instead identify the energy in your anxiety, and use it for the most important things in front of you. Start with what you have to do in the next hour, by the end of the day, tomorrow, and work yourself through the next few days. Get it down on paper (or digitally), and keep it short. When you get distracted or pulled away, go back to this list – it will be an important anchor.
3. Ditch the shame, and rally support. Talk about what’s happening to trusted listeners who can support and help, and avoid conversations with people from whom you feel pressure or judgment. Social support is not a luxury reserved for when you feel your best, it is vital for optimal coping. Be it help making your to-do list, getting it done, or simply a listening ear, connecting with others helps bolster our coping. If a friend offers to do something for you that would help, say yes. If you notice something you need and don’t have, ask a friend to help. When you allow people in, not only will you feel supported, but you will give them to boost their own happiness by helping – one of life’s greatest emotional bidirectional salves.
4. Beware of the “wish trap” of letting your mind spend too much time wishing things were different, the crisis hadn’t happened, or what you could have done differently. While some of this is intrinsic to absorbing a new reality, too much time fantasizing about a different outcome is wasted energy and pushes you farther away from the acceptance you need to move forward.
5. Be gentle, but don’t wallow. Be kind to yourself, but exercise discipline in making healthy choices that promote the fastest healing, with particular attention to sleep, nutrition, and exercise. For example, consider going to bed when you are tired. Whatever you didn’t finish the night before will wait for you. Or if insomnia is plaguing you, look to soothing bedtime rituals of hot tea, a warm bath, or a relaxation podcast. And if these don’t do the trick, talk to your doctor about an appropriate sleep aid. Do your best to pay attention to your food choices, and make the healthiest choices you can. Excess sugar, caffeine, and alcohol can all wreak havoc on your mood and stamina. Finally look for ways to move your body, even if its climbing the stairs more, or getting on your feet while you work. Long periods of sitting are known to be dangerous to your health and mood.
6. Expect to have crazy, scary dreams. While there is still much to learn about why we dream and what they mean, we do know that dreaming escalates during times of mental stress. Conventional logic holds that we process information while we sleep that we can’t address in waking life. A person under stress is more likely to experience vivid and stressful dreams than a person who is not stressed. Expecting to dream vividly can help you cope with the discomfort such dreams can create. Know that you are processing the crisis in everyway available to you, and your body is serving you as best it can.
In the early days of a crisis, the urgency of coping will be at the forefront of your experience. Let it be that way. This is your anxiety doing its job to get your attention and focus your energy productively. Ride this wave of energy as long as you can – there is much to do, and getting it done will help ease your pain. After all, there is no greater antidote to coping with forces beyond your control than taking control.