“Where there is ruin, there is hope for a treasure.”
What? My crisis has an upside ?? What kind of do-gooder, Pollyanna optimism is that?
Don’t get me wrong. Every single crisis I have ever been through was heart wrenching, scary, and kept me awake on numerous nights when I desperately needed sleep.
I don’t like crises. In fact, I coined a little acronym for them that explains just how much I would like to avoid them. I call them AFGOs, which stands for Another Frickin’ Growth Opportunity.
And yet…..I grew. From every single one of them. Sometimes the growth was exponential—like finally seeing just how strong I was when my son and husband both had cancer within the space of three years. Other times, it was only in retrospect that I saw the impact of the crisis—the ability to buckle down and study in order to graduate with my MBA (something that was in doubt after the first two semesters in grad school.)
So, what are some gifts that come from crisis? Researchers in post traumatic growth have found five areas where many people report a positive change in their lives, in the aftermath of a disaster or crisis:
1) Greater appreciation of self. While I owned, finally, the strength and resilience that others had always seen in me, my clients have had similar realizations. Angela (name changed) discovered just how good her business instincts and decisions were when her husband was incarcerated. She handed over the creative side of the business to others and began handling the day to day running of the company. In the years that he was in jail, she not only held their fledgling company together but grew into a well known and respected business.
2) A different perspective on life and purpose. Crises put things into perspective. Suddenly, when a disaster happens, the fight with your spouse or the aggravations of work no longer seem as important as they did before. Researchers report that often people carry that shift of perspective or new view of what is truly important into their lives even after the crisis has passed. Or, as my son, Nick, and I like to say, “If it’s not cancer and no one is dying, it’s not that big of a deal.”
3) Greater appreciation of life, compassion, and empathy. In addition to gaining a different perspective on life, many of my clients report that the small things in life are more likely to get their attention—bird song, the smile of a grandchild, a sunny day, or a good night’s sleep. When a crisis threatens our lives, our families, our homes, our health, and anything else we may see as integral to our happiness, we tend to value it more. Many of my clients who have gone through health challenges tell me that they are significantly more patient with other’s mistakes or foibles than they were before their crisis.
4) Enhanced relationships. Crises are petri dishes for growth—especially within a relationship. When our lives are disrupted by the shock waves of a financial, personal, or professional crisis, the masks that we live behind are often dropped. It can take too much energy to keep up a facade when your life is crumbling. The people who remain with us, support us, and love us through those crises see us at our most vulnerable. And, like Brené Brown so eloquently says, “what has been seen can not be unseen.” Our relationships will likely never be the same—and that is usually a good thing.
5) Spiritual development. Religious or spiritual beliefs can be buttressed or buffeted by crises. One client lost all faith in God when cancer ruined her health and her finances believing that if God existed, he wouldn’t let these bad things happen to her and others. Robert, sole caregiver when his spouse was disabled from multiple medical events, found solace in the spiritual traditions of his youth. For those who use the crisis as a catalyst for examining our lives and our beliefs, the crisis can be the beginning of a deeper faith or confidence in their spirituality.
Questions for you to consider if you’ve recently gone through a crisis:
- Do I see life differently in any way, prior to this crisis? In what ways has life become more precious to me? Are there things or people that I appreciate more than in the past?
- Do I find myelf taking certain events or issues less seriously than before? More seriously?
- Do I find it easier to talk about my emotions, feelings, or struggles than before the crisis? Do I reach out to others more readily than before?
- How have the priorities in my life changed?
- How have my beliefs in God/The Universe/The Divine different than they were pre-crisis? How so?
I would love to hear from you with how your crises changed you. Please leave a comment below!
Oh I believe there are angels among us.
Sent down to us from somewhere up above.
They come to you and me in our darkest hours.
To show us how to live, to teach us how to give.
lyrics by Becky Hobbs, sung by the group Alabama.
In August of 2004, I was invited to conduct a workshop in Shenzhen, China. The morning of the workshop, while breakfasting in the restaurant of my hotel, my purse was stolen. In it was my money, cell phone, credit cards, driver’s license and most important, my passport and visa.
While the staff of the five-star hotel searched the hotel and restaurant premises, I stood in the restaurant, in shock, desperately trying to wake up from a traveler’s worst nightmare. My mind immediately began to create the list of what would have to be done to be able to leave two days later on my flight.It seemed almost impossible–particularly as I spoke exactly three words of Mandarin Chinese. Stories of Chinese bureaucracy and stereotypes of Asian indifference, along with a fear of disappointing my important clients curled through my brain. My stomach clinched, my anxiety escalated and I kept forgetting to breathe.
It was in the midst of my panic that the first of many angels, Western and Chinese, appeared. Almost immediately the concierge—a wonderful young man named Paul–was assigned to accompany me through the logistical and legalistic labyrinth that leaving the country would require. Next, one of my clients opened his wallet and handed me the equivalent of $200 so that I had spending money on me. As I returned to my room, the phone rang. It was the Hong Kong office of my own company, calling to see what I needed. Quickly money was arranged to pay for a new passport and documents, a colleague was dispatched to handle the workshop, and home numbers were offered to ensure that I never felt alone. In the days that ensued, my gratefulness and wonder grew. People responded to a stranger’s need willingly and without fanfare.
This experience has taught me a lot. For one thing, when I travel these days, I’ve developed an almost obsessive grip on my purse. More importantly, it’s convinced me that there are angels always among us. However, unlike many of the angels of the Old Testament and other sacred texts, these earth angels don’t show up surrounded by light or heralded by trumpets. These angels quietly come into our lives, leaving their gifts of kindness and consideration naturally and unobtrusively. In fact, one of the ways that they can be recognized is by the very nature of their interactions—humble and matter of fact, they offer help and assistance where needed, in times of darkness, departing before the spotlight finds them.
When my son was diagnosed with lymphoma, my family and I were again visited by angels. Surrounded by frightening sights, the unknown vocabulary of cancer, and the geography of our new circumstances, we reeled with the changes this diagnosis made in our lives. Yet, as in China, within the first moments of landing in this new country, angels quietly and resolutely began to appear, bearing their gifts.
One of my favorite angels was Allen—our pest exterminator for now 20 years. Shortly after Nick was diagnosed with cancer, Allen showed up for his monthly appointment. When he asked about the family, my husband told him about Nick. Allen put aside his work and sat down, talked to Vito, offered to come cook for us on his day off and then refused to take payment for that day’s work. At a time when things looked pretty bleak, the light of his caring and the pragmatic way in which he demonstrated it reminded us of the love and support that surrounds us.
It’s easy to overlook the presence of angels. We get caught up in our agendas, our miseries, our challenges. The acts of kindness are quickly noted and then forgotten as we return to the problems around us. We can even dismiss the angels, unaware of the gifts they have brought us. A few weeks into chemotherapy, miserable from the drugs and anxious thoughts, my son recounted a strange event that occurred while he was going to sleep. His eyes closed, he was startled by a bright light in his room. He looked around but couldn’t find the source of the light. Shutting his eyes again, he heard a fluttering of wings and then felt pressure on the top of his head, as if someone had touched him there. Listening to his story, I told him that it sounded to me as if he had been visited by an angel and asked what he had done in response to all of the strangeness. Ever the pragmatist, Nick admitted that he had asked “it” to go away, he was trying to sleep.
I’m pretty sure that angels have a sense of humor about 16-year-old boys but it makes me think. How many times do we turn away angels in our lives because we’re focused on our own agenda, caught up in our own misery or problems? Do we choose to stay curled up in our challenges and negative world view, rather than see the acts of kindness around us? What do we go looking for during our own crises? The darkness or the light?
I believe that each crisis in our lives is an opportunity to grow and to connect with others. It’s not always easy to do so, especially in those crises that seem to suck out our energy, leaving us fearful and anxious in the night. Yet it is during those times that we are most encircled by angels, visible if we will but look for them. Their presence can fill us with hope, remind us of the love that is always around us, and bring light to dark situations. We just have to open our eyes and our hearts to see them.
You’ve just been gob-smacked and your world is spinning. You can’t think clearly, want to throw up, are looking for a place to hide or trying to wake up the nightmare that your world has just become. Most people, when faced with a life changing event like a cancer diagnosis, death of a loved one, sudden loss of an important relationship or job, feel it in their bodies. It becomes hard to breathe, our stomachs roil, we become light headed and nothing seems real. My memory of those first days after my sixteen year old son was diagnosed with precursor B cell lymphoma is hazy, I was disoriented, terrified, and numb—sometimes all at the same time.
So, what is going on, inside this skin that may feel like it no longer belongs to us? Our bodies, relying on the primitive (and successful) evolutionary design of the limbic system responds quickly and completely to stress or distress that we perceive to be severe. Our neurochemistry kicks into action, flooding the brain and the body with massive amounts of neurochemicals and hormones (adrenaline, norepinephrine, cortisol, and epinephrine) to read
y us to fight or flee. Physiologically, our blood pressure goes up, our pupils dilate, and our senses become hyper-vigilant to any changes around us.
Given all this and more that is happening inside of our bodies, it’s not surprising that we have trouble thinking straight. If we are going to move from shock to effective action, the first and most important action we can take is to move back into our bodies. In addition to the obvious techniques of eating well (protein and good complex carbohydrates rather than sugary fixes), getting adequate sleep, and maintaining some kind of exercise program, try some of the following suggestions to get back into your body so that you can do what needs to be done:
Take your shoes off. Rub your feet back and forth on the carpet. The sensation will make you aware of your body. Then stand, and with your feet spread about shoulder-width apart, push as if you are on a rug and trying to split it in two with your feet. Hold that pose for at least one minute. The sensation of your legs pushing will also bring you back into the lower part of your body, centering you.
Stamp your feet. Standing comfortably, alternating feet, lift each foot and place it firmly back down, feeling the impact of the ground in your legs. Do it for at least 30 seconds.
Jog in place. The repeated impact of your feet on the ground brings blood into your legs and increases your energy flow. Try it for 30 seconds to a minute at a time. This is especially good if you don’t have time to exercise as it can be done even in a hospital hallway while waiting. (Of course, they will look at you a bit oddly!)
Aromatherapy—Smell is a powerful sense and can impact our bodies tremendously, calming them and grounding them. Consider investing in some high quality essential oils such as sandalwood, lemongrass or white rose (particularly for grief). Put a dab on your body or rub it between your hands, close your eyes, and breathe it into your body. (This can be especially effective combined with deep, slow breathing.)
Yoga— If you can, consider dropping in on a local yoga class to see if that helps you handle the stress of the crisis. Hatha yoga, in particular, has several postures that support grounding.
Get a massage—Massage helps you be present in your body and it can provide some nurturing that you may be needing, especially now. Concentrate on any feelings that arise while you’re on the massage table. Let them come up and just flow out of you as your muscles relax. Pay attention to the parts of you that are holding onto the tension so that you can release those muscles more consciously.
In a crisis, we can’t move forward effectively unless we can push off from a position of stability. There will likely be many decisions to be made, emotions to be handled, and challenges to meet. Being centered and grounded allows you to meet each day fully present. And, in a crisis, how you show up may be one of the only things that you CAN control.
Have more questions about how to get through those first few days and hours? Check out the Resources section for an ever evolving list of books, articles, and links that may be helpful. Also, you may want to read Five Ways to Cope When A Crisis First Happens.
When you’ve been dumped unceremoniously into a crisis, it’s much like being thrown unexpectedly into an ocean. You sink for at least a few minutes into those dark, briny waters, disoriented and confused. Then, some instinct comes rushing in that causes you to fight your way back to the surface. You panic and thrash around before you remember again how to keep your head above the waves, and to breathe. How can you cope, or help someone else do so, those first few days after a tragedy or crisis has occurred?
Find someone to hold on to: Call a friend, a loved one, a trusted advisor, or family member. Make sure that it is someone who you can count on for solid advice and assistance. You will want to build a team of helpers later(How To Build a Community of Support that Rocks) but right now, reach out to someone who will help you navigate those first scary hours or days.
Process what you can when you can: When you receive a shock to your emotional, mental, or physical system, the brain and body go into survival mode—focusing the body on the three options our primitive brains had: fight, flight, or flee. You may find trying to understand complex or lengthy information almost impossibly hard until you regain some sense of equilibrium. Don’t be afraid to ask people to repeat the information or give you more time to digest it.
Make only the decisions you have to: Particularly with serious medical diagnoses and other life-altering crises, there can be a multitude of determinations that you may be asked to make. If you are still reeling from the shock, you may not be ready to choose from among difficult alternatives. Get advice about how critical it is that the answer be given immediately or if you can take twenty-four hours to think about the options. Ask for the pros and cons of each and don’t be afraid to ask for a second opinion. Unless the situation is truly and immediately life threatening, you should have some time to take a breath, listen to your heart and make a thoughtful decision.
Stay warm, dry and fed: Pay particular attention to your body during the initial stages of the crisis. While it is easy to forget to eat, consume fast food, go without sleep, and ignore physical symptoms, if you are going to function as optimally as possible, your body needs to be cared for, even if your mind is spinning.
Most of all, breathe: Many of us have the unfortunate tendency to hold our breaths or take quick shallow breaths when we are under stress-anxious, angry, or scared. This kind of breathing sends a message to our bodies that we are in imminent danger and triggers a flood of adrenaline throughout our nervous system, exacerbating our stressed out state and jacking up our physical discomfort. Melissa Mak’s article, Use Yogic Breathing to Calm Down in 6 seconds reminds us that we can stimulate the vagus nerve in our brains (which in turn helps our parasympathetic nervous system to chill out) by taking a deep breath in and exhaling for a count of six.
The first few hours and days of a crisis can be the most difficult to navigate. Using these strategies will help you get your head above water and orient yourself while you figure out what to do next.
What other techniques have you used?
Support systems, necessary to our survival in normal situations, become essential during times of crisis. Most simply, when our world falls apart because of a job loss, divorce, life-threatening illness or other seismic events, we need 1) help getting things done, 2) particular kinds of knowledge or expertise that we do not have but is crucial to resolving the crisis, 3) emotional and 4) spiritual support. Yet finding and keeping the help we need to get through the crisis can be difficult. Here are some guidelines that can assist you in doing so:
Gather your support thoughtfully and intentionally. Take a few moments to think about what support you really need. Make a to do list of what has to be done, without thinking about the “who” part of the equation.
- What is on there that you dread taking on? Where do you feel clueless?
- What are the problems that need to be solved or the decisions that need to be made? What kinds of expertise or knowledge will be critical in understanding the options–costs, benefits, and potential consequences?
- Is it expertise you don’t have, information you can’t get access to, a listening ear, or someone to remind you of who you are beneath the emotions and details you have to handle?
Now determine who can provide what you need. Don’t try to find one person to fit all the needs; rather, make a list of people who have a portion of those qualities.
Be responsible for shaping the support you get. One of the most valuable things you can do when pulling together a support team is to let them clearly know how they can help you best. While it may be easier, and certainly tempting, to show up and hope that people will intuitively know what you need, it is inadvisable to do so. When people are providing assistance to someone, they want to feel that they are doing it “right.” Don’t make them guess and take the chance of getting it wrong. While the particulars will probably vary depending on the issue for which you are seeking help, the individual providing it, and where you are—physically, emotionally, psychologically, think about:
- Format—what form of communication works best for you? Email, text? Phone calls? Face to face? Facebook messaging?
- Timing—When are you most available? How quickly do you need the assistance?
- Detail—Do you need all the facts, where the information comes from, back up data? Or just the bottom line.
One of my closest friends, and key members of my community support told me, years after I first shared my son’s diagnosis of cancer, how much she appreciated my note telling her to email me, instead of call. I knew that while I was doing everything I could to keep it together for Nick, I couldn’t handle actually hearing Barbara’s nurturing, loving voice without completely breaking down.
Call upon your community when you need them. Extraordinary circumstances can yield extraordinary help if you ask for it. When things are the grimmest, don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. People have great heroics within them that they willingly will rise to in the service of others. They just have to be asked. As someone who has asked, and received, much through the kindness of others, my recommendations are to:
Don’t let your own fears of rejection get in the way. You have nothing to lose by asking. Remind yourself that the worst that can happen is that you are still in the same spot as before you asked.
Use the “asks” very, very wisely. People will usually respond if the request is meaningful and/or infrequent. Daily or repeated requests can exhaust your community members’ goodwill.
Be as explicit as possible about what you need. This is so you don’t look like a bottomless pit of need (one of my fears). When you make specific requests that are limited (i.e. not “solve world hunger”) in nature, your supporters will have more confidence in their ability to deliver.
Preserve your community. It’s easy, when you’re the one suffering, to turn your support system into a dumping place for all of your angst and anger. That will likely happen on occasion but, when balanced with staying connected, demonstrating appreciation and providing some kind of reciprocity (when possible), the support system is more apt to stay in place without burning out or experiencing compassion fatigue. Some ways to preserve your community include:
Keep them informed. When people have invested in helping you through a crisis, it is only natural to want to know what is happening. Make sure that they are kept up to date on what has happened and what will happen. They will appreciate knowing but will also be in a better place to help you if their information is up to date.
Say “thank you.” Think about ways to show appreciation and gratitude for what they are doing and have done. It can be as easy as keeping stationery with you so that whenever time allows (waiting for doctors or clients was my favorite time to write a note) you can jot a quick thought expressing your heartfelt gratitude for their assistance and help.
Be interested in their lives. Stay genuinely connected. Ask about their families. Make sure they don’t feel uncomfortable that their lives are not in crisis by giving them permission (encouraging them, in fact) to talk about what is going on for them. Take the time to ask and listen to what is going on in their world..
By engaging the assistance you need intentionally, being clear about what you need, expressing gratitude, and keeping the relationships a two way street, your community of support can be one of your most effective means of getting through the difficult challenge you are facing. Or, as the Beatles so eloquently wrote, we “get by with a little help from our friends.”
For some people, the automatic reaction to a bone-jarring shock or fearsome event is to retreat or hunker down alone. While that is a very normal initial response, research supports that isolation during a crisis, is associated with significantly worse outcomes than those who chose to to others.
Resist the urge to handle the crisis by yourself. Pull people into your life who will support you. You probably will not be operating optimally during the initial shock. Having other people around who will can be vital. As the crisis continues, having friends, family and others who can help you navigate the many obstacles, hold onto your hope, remind you of who you really are, despite how you may currently feel, give wise advice, or help you think through important decisions is invaluable.
Based on personal and professional experience, there are five characteristics that seem to be most helpful to have around you, when finding your way through a serious life upset. Pick the ones that resonate with you and then start making a list of those people who naturally exude that trait. Don’t expect to find all five in one person but if you do, you’re lucky!
Supportive in the ways you need: Most of the people who show up to help in a crisis will want to be helpful to you. Unfortuntely, their idea of how to help may not match your own. Do you need someone to get stuff done around the house, take care of logistics? Then having someone who wants to just hug you and talk about how awful it may not be what you need. If you need peace and quiet to find your way through this rough patch in your life, the neighbor who bursts into tears everytime she sees you may be more of a drain than a help. Take some time out to think about what feels like support to you and start limiting your time with those who don’t or can’t offer that support.
Emotionally mature: By this, I mean someone people who have a solid base of self esteem within themselves. You can spot these people because they take responsibility for their own emotions rather than blaming others for their unhappiness or anxiety. This is particualary important during a crisis because you may be dealing with a lot of your own emotions and constantly changing circumstances. If you are abrupt, don’t call, or are consistently inconsistent during the height of the crisis, you want someone who can roll with those punches rather than taking them personally. My friends who could still find me, beneath my frazzled, whiny, or anxious appearance were on my speed dial when the logistics of having a son and husband seriously ill became too much to handle alone.
Objective: This trait is especially important when you have important decisions to make as part of the crisis that you are facing. It is invaluable to have someone who can help you think through both sides of an option, ask tough questions that lead you to fully explore the alternatives, and then support you when you take action on your decisions–without letting his or her agenda pre-empt the discussion. And, as comforting as it may be to seek out only people who will agree with you, once the emotions of the crisis have subsided, you will be glad that you approached your decisions from a more balanced place. More than one client, debriefing after a personal crisis such an unwanted or messy divorce, has talked with shame about decisions they made out of anger that overwhelmed their best selves.
Wise: Wisdom comes in many flavors—good judgment, expert knowledge, life experience, or by being connected strongly to one’s inner guidance and heart. Depending on circumstances that you are facing, you may seek out one or more of these qualities. When my husband was in ICU, rapidly losing all control of his body due to Guillain Barre, a neurological disease, I desperately needed the expertise of my medical community as well as the reassurance of a church member whose husband had faced the same temporary and scary physical devastation.
A sense of humor: It really helps to have someone in your corner who can make you laugh, at the situation or yourself, when everything else seems impossibly complex, sad, or undoable in your world. Researchers credit humor with increasing the number of endorphins released by your brain, decreasing tension, helping improve both your mood and your immune system, as well as easing pain. So, with a friend who can bring humor into your life, not only will you get a break from the often relentless stress of the crisis, you may find your head getting just a bit clearer.
What would you add to this list? Drop me a line in the comments section. I’ll post the responses in my next blog on “How to Develop a Community of Support that Rocks!” Thanks!