Crisis. Man walking on the flooded street after Hurricane Sandy landfall

Handling yourself in a Crisis: Making a Plan

Don’t wait until you’re in a crisis to come up with a crisis plan.

~Phil McGraw

How do you handle yourself in a crisis?

Are you able to think logically and rationally? The ability to remain calm when responding to a crisis is not something that comes easily to many people. It can be quite hard to hold your emotions in check, especially when faced with an emergency that could significantly affect you or those you love.

Part of this ability is related to our level of self-control. Some of us are more prone to panic than others. There are those who, somehow, are able to keep their heads no matter what’s going on, while others fly off the handle in response to the slightest emergency. If you’re in the latter group, is there anything you can do about it? Are there ways to stay calm in a crisis?

What is a crisis?

To understand this part of ourselves, we have to know what constitutes a crisis. When does a situation that has started to go south begin to create a sense of urgency and alarm? Of course, there are many situations that could cause these feelings, but how we define a crisis situation has implications for how we handle one.

For the purposes of this discussion, I’m not including tragedies or other traumatic events that have already happened and are out of our control. These events can definitely fall into the category of a crisis, but they are emotional crises—which we handle differently. These are just as critical to handle effectively but are beyond the scope of this topic.

Having a plan

Ultimately, panic can be mitigated by developing a plan to address the crisis situation—not separate plans for every contingency that might arise but a general plan that involves elements of self-assessment, information-gathering, decision-making, and action. Specific plans are also important, but equally important is the ability to implement these plans when we might otherwise panic. This requires training ourselves to take steps once a crisis situation arises.

It may sound silly or trivial, but using your plan in non-crisis situations will help you remember and be able to implement it when a crisis does happen. When a challenging situation comes up, use your plan. Take it step by step and work the problem. Once you have developed a plan and used it, you may notice you need to adjust elements of the plan based on effectiveness or what works best given your mental and emotional state. You should practice your plan enough that you can remember the steps and get to a point where taking each step comes naturally.

What should go into a plan?

Again, in your plan, you should not try to anticipate any particular crisis event that you may face, but that being said, your plan should take into account the way you process information. It should incorporate your emotional makeup and the specific tools you might use to manage your emotions, and it should consider the way you take action.

There are many theories (and entire books) written about how people behave, or should behave, in crisis situations that contain detailed suggestions for preparation and implementation. In this article, I’m just going to hit on the fundamental elements we need when facing a crisis. These elements include the following.

  • Stay calm. Although it may seem like a waste of time in a crisis, it’s important to take steps to remain calm. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, use a quick affirmation (e.g., “I got this” or “Just do what needs to be done”). If you can get your emotional state under control, you’ll be much more capable of handling whatever is happening.
  • Make an honest assessment of the situation. When a crisis develops and panic starts to set in, it can be easy to deny unpleasant facts and act based on a reality that you wish existed rather than the one that actually does. It’s vital to be honest with yourself about the facts of the crisis, even when (especially when) they’re dire.
  • Identify your next steps. When faced with a crisis, we often feel like we have to do everything at once and wind up doing nothing (or nothing effectively). It’s necessary to identify and prioritize the necessary tasks. Again, this might seem like you’re wasting valuable time, but it’ll help you take care of specific discrete tasks and actually make progress.
  • Take action. Once you’ve assessed the situation and identified your next steps, it’s important to move! Many people, when faced with a crisis, become like a deer in headlights, paralyzed with worry, fear, or panic. But if you’ve taken the previous three steps, you’ve done what’s necessary to understand what you must do—now it’s time to actually do it! Be bold and do what needs to be done.

A crisis is an opportunity

A crisis almost always involves a drastic and unexpected change in our reality. By nature, we try to hang on to the familiar, especially when it’s being pulled out from under us. But once we’ve taken the second step above—accepted the situation for what it is instead of holding on to what we want or expect it to be—we can be open-minded to whatever the new reality is and even look for bright spots. The Chinese word for “crisis” is composed of two characters: “danger” and “opportunity.” A crisis might present us with something we’ve never been exposed to before, or it might provide us with a chance to do something new and different. We might not have chosen that path if it hadn’t been for the crisis, but maybe that’s because we were set in our ways or because it hadn’t occurred to us. Part of being able to handle a crisis well is our ability to adapt to new situations and circumstances, but we have to be open to those possibilities.

Don’t rebel against reality—embrace it and run with it. You may like where it takes you.

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