When you are in the throes of a crisis—whether it’s a pandemic, the loss of a loved one, or a major life change—you may feel overwhelmed, stressed, and even physically unwell. The crisis may consume your every waking moment, making it hard to see a path forward.
But Jennifer Love, MD, and Kjell Hovik, PsyD, PhD, have developed a process that will help you manage any crisis—and emerge even stronger. In their book, “When Crisis Strikes: 5 Steps to Heal your Brain, Body, and Life from Chronic Stress,” they describe five strategies and explore how different people (themselves included) applied the process to deal with a wide variety of intensely stressful situations, from chronic illness, depression, and cognitive decline to cancer, chronic pain, and addiction.
They explore divorce, death of a sibling, financial ruin, trauma, extramarital affairs, chronic worry, spiritual crisis, borderline personality disorder, and the demands of parenting a special needs child. They share stories of people who have overcome abusive parents, mass shootings, bullying, suicide, and sexual abuse.
Here’s a look at those five steps:
STEP 1: Get a grip
Your brain and body are wired to respond to stress quickly, not to pause and deal with complex threats. Step one is about learning how to override your brain’s automatic tendency to freak out. It challenges you to identify what your life crisis is triggering from deep within you and to unearth past experiences that may be amplifying your physical and emotional response to your current situation. Think of your crisis as a meteor landing in a sandy field. The meteor is the main problem, but it’s surrounded and hidden by a cloud of sand and dust made of the multitude of thoughts and threats that swirl around you when you’re dealing with a crisis. You have to make your way through the chaos to identify and focus on the core problem before you can begin to solve it.
To do that, you can practice using attentional focus (which is often called mindfulness) to train yourself to deal with the chaos by choosing which thoughts to quiet and which to pay attention to.
It can help to write down key words and descriptions. The physicality of writing and creating something on the outside to mirror a thought or feeling on the inside can help you better “see” a problem. From there, you can begin to examine the thinking behind the emotions generated by the problem.
STEP 2: Pinpoint what you can control
In a crisis, it may feel like nothing is within your control, so it can be easier to do this exercise in reverse. Identify what is beyond your control. Let’s use illness as an example. If your spouse has been diagnosed with a serious illness, you can’t control the diagnosis or how your partner responds to it. So think about how you can manage the things you can’t control. This step involves pinpointing options, not committing to acting on them. You are training your brain to step beyond reacting to your crisis. You are designing a measure of control over your circumstances. You may consider attending a support group or researching specialty medical centers.
Once you eliminate what you can’t control, you can shift your focus on where your energies are better spent. Think about things you can control, such as what you eat, what time you go to bed, and whether you get out of the house to spend time with friends or to exercise.
STEP 3: Push into motion
Next, you need to find your inner motivation to take whatever action you need to move forward. If your crisis is job loss, that action might be moving to another state with more opportunity. If your crisis is depression, it might be seeing a therapist.
If you’re finding it difficult to commit to a decision, try this exercise. Divide a piece of paper into four quadrants. Label one “Benefits of Action,” one “Consequences of Action,” one “Benefits of Inaction,” and one “Consequences of Inaction.” Fill in the boxes with any and every argument; then highlight the three most important items on the page. This exercise will give you a powerful visual image of what is most important to you.
Next, break down the tasks you need to accomplish into easy and tough actions. The true test of whether you are ready to push into motion and move on to the next steps is whether you can start doing easy actions on a daily basis.
If you’re not ready, don’t worry. You might need to spend more time on step one, find more easy actions to start with, or reach out to a friend or therapist for help and support. Once you’ve completed your easy tasks, you’ll be better prepared to deal with the tougher challenges.
STEP 4: Pull back
Step Four is about finding balance, so that despite our life crisis, our emotional responses can be appropriate for what is going on in the moment. Ruminating on past events and worrying about the future won’t solve a medical problem or save you from financial troubles, but stopping the worrying in this moment will offer a much-needed respite from overthinking. Once you’ve practiced being in the here and now, reflect on these questions:
- How am I adding stress to my life?
- Which of my daily habits and routines are healthy, and which are too complicated or stressful?
- How am I willing to simplify these habits and routines?
- What is important in my life, and are my actions aligned with that?
Be honest in your reflections and kind in how you treat yourself. Shame and self-judgment lead to isolation and depression, but curiosity creates a space where change becomes possible.
STEP 5: Hold on and let go
In this step, you work on cultivating the personality traits, characteristics, relationships, and lifestyle choices that you want in your life moving forward.
Before there was a crisis and before you grew up, there was a time in your life when you were young at heart, with infinite possibilities and few responsibilities. What positive qualities do you think of when you reflect on that time? Humor, curiosity, playfulness, intensity, orderliness, correctness, mischievousness, generosity?Step Five is also a time to let go of the things that don’t support your well-being: unhealthy thinking patterns, grudges, or personality traits that prevent you from being the person you want to be.