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 it, I included a chapter on “What to Do When Crisis (Inevitably) Hits”. In a modified excerpt from that chapter, here are some of the key things that I recommend you keep top of mind, and do, when crisis hits:
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, PhD, one of the world’s leading researchers in resilience, writes this 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, 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? 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 this:
“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 wellbeing 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.
6) Count your blessings.
In The Resilient Life, I share some of the science behind why this particular strategy is so important. In additionally to helping you feel better, it can also meaningfully protect and help your mental health.
Keep track of any blessings, big or small, during difficult times. Keep track in a physical notebook or a notes file on your phone. Actively watch out for, and expect, the good, whenever you’re going through something bad. Later, share what you discovered with others. Encourage them with your stories about the surprising goodness of life in dark times, when they are in their nightmare season.