Getting through a crisis – some tips

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One good tactic is to diarise when you are going to attend to each problem you have. Humans are not built for multi-tasking, and a sure way to upset yourself is to try to contemplate everything at once.  Photo by Hey Beauti Magazine on Unsplash

Not all mental health issue are neat and tidy.  Often, several events conspire to bring you a series of difficulties.  Just one thing, and you might sail through it without too many problems.  But more than that, and your happiness starts to be compromised.

A crisis might be defined as a time in your life when your very survival seems to be under threat.  It could be the survival of a way of life, or a bank balance, or even life itself.  But, somehow, events have conspired to pressurise you beyond your immediate ability to cope.

The aim of this article is to look at the anxiety that a crisis can provoke, and offer a few simple ways in which any person can exercise a degree of self-care.  First I’ll look at what often happens in a crisis; then at how we can moderate our behaviour to give us the best chance of surviving happy.

THINGS THAT CHARACTERISE A CRISIS

At times of extreme pressure, certain things are usually present, whatever the particular crisis is.

  1. A sense of not enough time available.  Often, there is a great sense of urgency, combined with the feeling that our own energy will not be enough to get us through.
  2. A sense of imminent loss.  We fear losing something which we are attached to, whether it be a lifestyle, an asset, or a person.
  3. A feeling of acute anxiety.  The mind will be turning the problem(s) over and over, trying to find solutions.  This can be exhausting, and get in the way of consistent performance in other areas of life.  It can feel as though everything is going to come tumbling down, because so much energy is being used just to get by.
The reason I have separated out these three factors, is to help make clear three corresponding self-care tactics we can use to reduce the effects of a crisis on our happiness.

TACTIC 1 – EXPAND YOUR SENSE OF TIME

You will inevitably feel at crisis times that there is just not enough time to go round, that things have to be sorted out, just so, right now.  This may be true.  Certainly, if you’re a surgeon and someone needs operating on, then there may well be limited time.  But often, there is more time available than we think.  (Even surgeons have to employ tactics to depressurise the situation and enhance performance!)

There are several ways of expanding your sense of time available.  Here are a few you may want to try:

  1. Diarise when you are going to attend to each problem.  This particularly helps when you have several problems at once.  Humans are not built for multi-tasking.  And a sure way to upset yourself is to try to contemplate everything at once.  So maybe think about one problem at six o’clock tonight, and another at 4pm tomorrow.  Splitting things out like that is surprisingly effective.  It teaches your brain that it is allowed ‘time off’ worrying about particular things, and stops you overthinking.
  2. Organise company for your thinking time.  If you know a friend who is prepared to help you think something through, then arrange a time to speak with them, and don’t worry too much until you speak with them.  At times of crisis, you may not feel strong enough to handle everything alone.  Leaning on a friend or counsellor a little is a good way of taking some pressure off yourself.  If you are worried about being a burden to others, then ask first.  But most people, if they know it helps, will spare time to think something through.  The reason this helps expand time, is that the social friendliness involved in making a cup of tea, and just interacting, slows down the worry process, and you start to match the quieter pace of the other person.
  3. Tidy up your working and living space.  Silly as it sounds, this really works.  If you are messy, you are constantly reminded of everything you have to do.  But if everything is tidied away into its place, then you have a much greater sense of control over your environment.  The reason tidying up expands your sense of time available, is that your mind is very influenced by what it can see.  Think of a busy shopping centre.  It is designed to promote your sense of busy-ness and urgency, and make you spend a lot.  There is a lot of ‘pull’ from your environment.  Now think why a peaceful landscape, or a well-tended garden, is so calming.  Here, the environment lets you be, and is not demanding constant action from you.  This gives you a sense of time available.  So tidy away your correspondence, your notes, and your bills and demands.  Diarise them instead.  Then you can live in a peaceful environment, knowing when you will attend to each thing.
TACTIC 2 – REDUCE YOUR ATTACHMENT TO VALUED OBJECTS AND PEOPLE

This seems mean and counterintuitive.  Am I saying you shouldn’t value what’s around you?  Of course not.  But imagine a good parent.  They would want their children to be able to live without them happily.  In the same way, as a child of the universe, your aim should be to be able to live happily without everything you have.  Hold lightly what you have, because it may be taken from you.

Why does this help in a crisis?  Well, when arguments and difficulties are at their most acute, we turn into the most anxious and clingy people you can imagine.  This is because we are afraid of imminent loss – of a reputation, or a bank balance, or a friend.

Ask yourself: what’s the worst that can happen?  Imaginitively work through whether you could cope.  Often the worst case is actually easier than the current case, because all the anxious uncertaintly will have gone by then.  So do it: imagine the loss, without fear, and you may be surprised to see that you could probably get by if it happened.

You are not insulting your current situation by imagining it gone.  But let it go, and see if that brings you relief.  And once you have shown yourself life without what you value, and accepted that, then what you have now may feel like a gift.  I remember sitting with my sister before she died.  I realised then that every moment is precious.  So these days, instead of getting attached to things, I hold them lightly, and value them while they are here.

TACTIC 3 – TREAT REBUILDING YOUR ENERGY AS AN IMPORTANT ACTIVITY

Anxious people use up energy far faster than relaxed people.  It is why you can feel exhausted at the end of a day, even if you have just sat still worrying.  Worrying is exhausting!  Who would sit in a still car with their foot on the accelerator?  But that is what we are doing when we worry.  It uses up our petrol and makes a noise in our head.

In addition to this, worriers feel they should always be doing, and never stopping.

My suggestion is that you learn to take your foot off that accelerator in your brain and in your body.  You are not built to be anxious all the time.  Instead, practice letting go of everything you are ‘holding up’.  (You are not really holding it all up, but you think you are.  I could say you are very important to everything just to keep your ego happy… but I won’t say that.  I’m sure you can handle the truth.)  The truth is that you are allowed to take time to recover and rebuild yourself.  If you were a Formula One car, you would expect to be well-maintained.  And how much more valuable you are than a Formula One car.

The easiest way of doing this is distraction – or, put another way, focus on a chosen ‘good’ object.  That’s how meditation works.  You learn to keep your mind on something healthy, instead of racking it to death on unhealthy speculation.

AN EXERCISE

If you feel in crisis, then ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What can be diarised for later, so that I can remain calm now?
  2. Whom can I meet with, to help share the load?
  3. Have I got a few moments to tidy my environment, and create a sense of space?
  4. What’s the worst that can happen?  Can I accept that?
  5. What can I do, just for now, to help rebuild my energy?
  6. Is there a healthy activity I can focus on, just for now, to regain balance?
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SUMMARY

Life often throws several things at once at you.  It’s not pleasant.  At such times, we feel time-compression, imminent loss, and anxiety.  To counteract this, we can:

  1. Diarise worry-time for later so that we can feel more relaxed in the now
  2. Share our worry-time with a friend, so that we share the burden
  3. Keep our environment tidy and peaceful
  4. Accept the worst, and don’t get too attached to how things are
  5. Take time to rebuild ourselves, and treat that as a valuable activity
  6. Learn to let go and focus on the good, perhaps through meditation as a practice
FOOTNOTE
None of this is intended to minimise the experience of a crisis.  Crises take many forms, and are serious.  But it outlines some things we can do to help ourselves.  In an emergency, please consider using emergency services as appropriate, as well as non-judgemental support services such as Samaritans, which have 24-hour availability.  In addition, counselling and psychotherapy, done well, provide a safe, calm environment in which to share, reflect, recover and strengthen.
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