Confronting a Crisis: Responding to and Halting Life’s Unexpected Challenges

When you’re suddenly faced with difficult circumstances, focusing on your response instead of the problem is essential.

You don’t always know when the next challenge in your life will arrive or what form it will take. The only sure thing, perhaps, is that another hurdle will be placed in your path at some point. Will you be ready when it does?

Becoming more resilient in the face of ongoing difficulties is certainly helpful (see cover story), but specific skills are necessary to stay strong in the early going.

“Our response to a crisis will of course depend on the crisis, i.e., the response to the loss of a loved one will differ from fighting an injustice,” explains psychiatrist Daphne Holt, MD, PhD, director of the Resilience Enhancement and Prevention Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. “However, if we can first be mindful and ground ourselves in the moment we will be better able to determine what decision is most effective in the moment.”

For example, Dr. Holt suggests you pause and take a step back from the situation, notice what you’re feeling and the types of thoughts you are having. “For many of us, when we experience a crisis we want to fix it quickly and not feel whatever feelings we’re having,” she adds. “This is understandable. However, the ability to experience the feelings that are present will allow us to cope more effectively.”

Watch for Warning Signs

As you pay attention to your feelings and behaviors, keep a lookout for signs that you’re not handling things well emotionally. These warning signs may develop over time or may start to emerge soon after problems arise:

  • Neglecting personal hygiene
  • Significant changes in appetite and sleep
  • Mood changes, such as being more irritable, anxious, or sad than usual
  • Withdrawing from relationships and routine activities

If you’re confronted with the kind of challenge that you know could be overwhelming, it’s best to reach out for help earlier than later. In other words, don’t wait for warning signs. Share your bad news with those who can help and tackle your challenge together.

Dealing with Depression

When the bad news is very bad, such as a job layoff or a family health crisis, it’s not common to withdraw into hopelessness. If you have previously been diagnosed with depression or have previously demonstrated depressive symptoms, you may be much more likely to have such a response.

“Pre-existing depression is a vulnerability factor when facing a crisis,” says Anne Burke, PhD, a clinical fellow with MGH’s Resilience Program. “Managing depression with therapy, medication, and social support is critical. For someone without depression who is faced with a crisis, they might respond by feeling sad, hopeless and discouraged, but seeking help, not suppressing or amplifying feelings (just accepting them), may speed the recovery process.”

One other important note: If you start having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, seek help immediately. A sudden crisis can be emotionally unsettling, pushing people to have thoughts and feelings they never experienced before. Don’t ever feel that you’re alone in dealing with any problem, large or small.

Control What You Can

A useful bit of coping advice is to focus on what you can control, not on the things that are out of reach. Dr. Burke agrees, and adds that such a philosophy is especially important in the immediate aftermath of a crisis. Your attitude and your effort are two things that are absolutely yours to control. “Knowing that most of the time we cannot change a situation, but can change the way we respond to it, can free us up to focus on the factors that are in our control,” she says. “Responding with compassion to ourselves even when things are becoming difficult can help reduce the amount of distress we experience. Having positive relationships (mentors, role models, friendships, etc.) and reaching out to those people early on can be a proactive step, remembering that it isnot a weakness to ask for help.”

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