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?