Imagine you have an hour to evacuate a wildfire, and you can only take what you can fit in your car. How do you even start making these decisions? Beyond the essentials of important papers and a change of clothes, what would you take? What would you leave to burn? If you live in the West, you may have already been faced with choices like these.
I believe in sleeping on any big decision, but the reality is there are situations in life that require an immediate response. That said, be wary of getting caught up in a false sense of urgency, based on your emotional reaction to the circumstances.
So, how do you make good decisions when a crisis is ripping the rug out from under you?
First of all, any amount of time you can wait before you speak or act will provide you with more clarity about your situation than you had during your initial knee-jerk reaction, even if you only wait five minutes. But if you can take 15 or 20 minutes, better yet, especially if you use the time to calm down as much as you can.
Tips for Keeping Your Wits About You
In a crisis situation, I use the following reminders to stay aware of what my emotional reactions are up to. This helps me stay on track so I can be as functional as possible and make the best decision I can when I’m under pressure.
1. First, pay attention to your breathing.
Being under the influence of emotional reactions to stress is a lot like being drunk or stoned. I know I’m not in my right mind when I’m reacting, so I wait until I’m “sober” before I say or do anything. I get there by breathing and relaxing tension in my body, which works to calm my emotions and quiet my mind.
In this moment, focusing on my breath is the goal. While stress chemicals pressure me to react and save myself, breathing connects me with the part of my brain designed to think things through. But I’m not expecting an answer to my dilemma. I know I might not get anything like true clarity before the crisis has played itself out, and there’s no way to know how long that will take.
What am I waiting for? I’m waiting for my fight-or-flight alarms to quiet down so I can accept the reality of what is happening.
2. Know that if you’re triggered, you’re also in pain.
When I’m upset, I take a pause. This pause gives me a chance to identify what’s actually going on with me. I start by acknowledging that I’m in pain. Then I try to pinpoint the hurt further, like: “I’m really angry.” Or “I’m afraid.” Or “I’m so confused.”
In a full-blown crisis, you’re likely to be continuously triggered. But if you can acknowledge your pain even as the triggers keep coming, you can stay in touch with your deeper feelings, and be less overwhelmed by your reactions.
3. Keep your emotions real.
It’s crucial to differentiate between authentic pain and reactive pain. Your authentic pain emotions are:
- Anger about the way things are affecting me or something I care about.
- Grief over what’s been lost or my sadness that this happened.
- Confusion about what I don’t understand or that I don’t know what to do.
- Fear of uncertainty.
In high-stress situations, I remind myself that my fear triggers the reactive pain emotions – shame, blame, guilt, outrage and self-pity. This helps me see that acting on these reactions will not do anything to help the situation.
Taking the time to distinguish between authentic and reactive pain interrupts the impulse to react emotionally and allows me to function more effectively under pressure. It helps to reduce the pull of the stress response that pressures me to do something, anything! FAST! to make it stop!
4. Pay attention to the facts.
Once I’ve started to calm down and can feel my authentic pain, this calmer space, however small, lets me see the facts available to me in that moment.
In a highly charged situation, my fears, judgments and opinions are usually flying, but to keep myself on track, I just keep asking, “What are the facts?” It might be a pretty short list at first.
5. Be honest.
In other words, don’t make sh*t up! The uncertainty in these kinds of upsetting situations can be very difficult. Sticking with what’s real – even if that means I can’t possibly know something I’m desperate to know – keeps me honest.
In a crisis, these are the things I consider:
- Can I really see where things are heading, or am I making up a story to prepare myself for some worst-case scenario that may never come to pass?
- Am I indulging in my fears? In other words, what is the thing I’m most afraid of? Am I caught up trying to stop this thing from happening?
- Am I spinning out with: What-if? What-if? What-if?
It’s impossible to know all the ways in which something could go wrong. It’s absolutely possible to know the available facts. All you can do is get as close to objective reality as you can using the meager information you have and wait for more information to drop in.
6. Let go of the outcome.
Even if whatever happens is beyond my personal control, I can practice trusting what I don’t know by focusing on my breathing and trying to relax. With most crises, the outcome is uncertain.
I remind myself – all I can do is the best I can.
The options may not be ideal, and none of the potential outcomes even remotely “good.”
I may not get it “right,” and that’s okay. Trying to do it perfectly (whatever that is?!) will only lead to paralysis when I need to act. Or, it may cause me to act when I would be better off stopping to take a breath instead.
I try to let go of:
- Worrying about what people will think of my action/decision.
- Worrying it’s not the “right” decision and will haunt me later.
- Worrying about unintended consequences and that I will somehow make things worse than they already are.
These fears impede my ability to stay grounded and present so I can think things through as clearly as possible.
The reality is that I may never get as calm as I’d like to in a crisis, but whatever I can manage will help – whether it’s five minutes or five breaths. What’s most important is to keep myself aware and functional.
So, I keep this summary of the tips on hand – literally. I have a printed, laminated copy of this list in my purse, which I review as often as I need to:
- If I’m upset, I’m in pain.
- What kind of pain am I in? Authentic pain (anger, grief, confusion, uncertainty) VS reactive pain (shame, blame, guilt, pity, outrage).
- What are the facts?
- Be honest. (Don’t make Sh*t up!)
- Let go of the outcome.
While I certainly don’t wish you a crisis, if you do encounter one, I hope these tips help you make the best decisions you can under the circumstances.
Take good care : )