Emotional first aid: How to respond to a personal crisis

Image by Milada Vigerova

What are the hardest times in life? When do we fall so hard that it seems impossible to get up?

Bad news at the doctor, an unexpected phone call in the middle of the night or the end of a relationship. These and other examples can be the beginning of a crisis.

Most of the time, there is a specific event that marks its start.

But sometimes a crisis develops over time and circles around existential questions about direction, meaning and a sense of self. We can think of people who have doubts if they chose the right career or perhaps a mother who lost a sense of purpose after her kids moved out.

In either case crises are disruptions to our inner emotional balance. They threaten our sense of who we are because they take something away from us – our job, our mental or physical health, a person we were close with, a sense of meaning and so forth.

If we hope to recover we must turn to the right coping strategies. Here are six principles that you can use to move through difficult times.

1) Doing your emotional homework

I’m going to guide you through some practical suggestions you can follow when dealing with the emotional ramifications of a major life crisis. But in order for them to have any lasting effect on your life you must be willing to do your emotional homework.

Whatever you’re dealing with, the situation is going to stir up an emotional cocktail quite unlike what you experience during your crisis-free days.

There is great confusion as to what emotions actually are. They are not hard-wired pathways in your brain. You don’t have emotions like your lungs. Instead they develop in a two-step process.

Emotions are your mental interpretation of a physical feeling in your body. For example, if you have been left by your partner and now feel a knot in your throat, your brain will interpret the feeling as sadness.

In a totally different context, let’s say after a concert where you sang until you had lost your voice, you might feel the same blocked feeling in your throat. This time, however, your brain will have a totally different interpretation and you won’t feel sad.

Doing your emotional homework means acknowledging those emotions (sadness, grief, anger and so on). Biologically speaking, emotions are your brain’s way of sending messages that are relevant for your survival. Sadness, for instance, is an important force because it reminds us what matters most to us.

The opposite of acceptance is denial or distraction. So many people refuse to deal with their emotions, sometimes to the point of creating repressed or false memories. Or they occupy their mind with other things like TV or work.

But these strategies will only numb the emotions. By putting them away, temporarily or for good, they move to the background but lose nothing of their force on your thoughts, actions and ultimately, your life.

You have emotions for a reason and by refusing to acknowledge them you sabotage your own recovery potential.

How to feel THROUGH the pain

Learning to feel through your emotions is difficult but also one of the most important life skills. It all starts with shifting some of your attention inward in order to make space for the emotions to come up.

Different people prefer different methods, so you might want to experiment a little. For some various forms of meditation are helpful. For others taking long walks or spending prolonged time alone can work. Another option is journaling about your emotions and the experiences surrounding them. Allowing emotions can also be done without a formal method. As you go by your daily routine you can feel them.

Next, when you have made the space, you must learn to label the emotions. Try to understand how sadness is different from grief or despair. By expanding your emotional vocabulary you become more aware of the nuanced message behind the feeling.

This process of mindful acceptance and non-resistance is not for the faint-hearted as this phase will be painful and upsetting. Acknowledged emotions will show themselves in the body and you will scream, cry and feel restless.

But then, it get’s better. Once they are heard these emotions will lose part of their intensity and like a ball that bounces up and down, they too, will eventually lay still. Aside from that the time necessary to recover from the crisis is greatly shortened.

In fact, even peer-reviewed science has now honored what Buddhist monks have known for thousands of years: Accepting your “negative” feelings improves your happiness and psychological health.

Doing your emotional homework refers to confronting your emotions head-on. It is both the first and most important step towards recovery.

2) Seeking comfort from friends and family

Friends and family can be a great source of comfort during a crisis. Their presence alone often serves as something to hold onto while everything else seems to fall apart.

In addition they support your coping process because they provide yet another environment where you can feel and express your emotions. Wise and compassionate friends can also help you understand what happened.

Seeking friends is healing but you have to be careful.

When you share what happened some people will not be able to tolerate your pain. Seeing you suffer this much is unbearable for them and so they can’t make the space for you and the situation. In this case it is better to withdraw (even from your family) and seek people who have the emotional intelligence, patience and compassion that you need during this time.

Another issue with friends and family sometimes comes up when they see the situation as a problem that needs fixing. Hoping to help they offer immediate advice.

“Do this. Do that.” However, at this stage of the process you are looking at the crisis itself, not at the next steps. What happened? Who is involved? Where’s the hurt? You are not looking for solutions. This can come later.

A powerful response from your friends could be “I don’t know what to say”. This is honest and vulnerable because it allows the experience to be what it is without offering any cutting-corners-type solutions.

It may be helpful to thank your friends for the advice they’re offering and then to tell them that at this point you are not ready to move on towards taking action. You’re devoted to feeling whatever emotions arise at this stage because you believe it is necessary to come out healthy and happy. Non-judgmental and compassionate people who truly listen are your best medicine at this point.

They can also support you by offering touch. Gently holding hands or hugging are wonderful ways to exchange warmth, a sense of belonging and compassionate understanding.

Hugging crisis
Image by freestocks.org

It doesn’t have to be touch from others. You can give yourself the same kind of compassion while being completely alone.

For this “self-soothing touch” different people need different gestures. A hand on the heart works for me. For others it may be holding yourself in a literal self hug, putting a hand on the belly, gently stroking the cheeks with the palm or back of the hand. In the beginning this sometimes feels weird, so you may want to try it when no one is watching.

Friends and family are one the most effective antidotes to emotional pain and depression. They can listen, provide a feeling of belonging and help you understand the situation.

3) Taking care of yourself

During an emotionally upsetting time it is very important that you take good care of yourself.

Make sure you meet your basic needs. Most of all this includes eating and sleeping. A lack of appetite may come with the many symptoms of the crisis. Eating may feel like just another chore but an important one at that.

The opposite is often true for sleep. As your body will consume more resources you require more sleep. This too is normal and instead of criticizing yourself you can try to make room for some extra bed time hours.

But don’t stop there. After ensuring the basics you can do more. Exercising and spending time in nature are great ways of looking after yourself.

Working out allows you to expend your energy. This helps with the many spiraling thoughts that rarely ever contain new or useful information. Workouts also flood your nervous system with happiness inducing hormones such as serotonine and dopamine.

When you go outside to spend time in nature, perhaps in a forest, park or maybe the mountains, you will find the outside peaceful and calm. Some of this calmness will carry itself over to you. Long walks in nature really can do wonders for the wounded soul.

And finally, during a crisis, don’t forget you are allowed to treat yourself. A day at the sauna. Getting a massage. Eating some chocolate. Just make sure to keep an eye on the balance of things so you don’t overindulge.

By taking care of yourself you take responsibility for your mental and physical health – a simple but important step towards regaining a sense of control over your life.

4) Managing your internal dialogue

Who is to blame? This simple question may present itself as a magnifying quake during your emotional turmoil. And more often than not, it will turn towards you. “I did this”, you might think. “I deserve this”, “I am to blame”. Criticizing yourself for what happened seems to be a learned response for so many people.

If we look behind the motivation of this inner critic we often learn that it actually wants to protect us from harm.

Paradoxically, by assigning blame towards ourselves it urges us to take responsibility to make better decisions in the future. “Don’t do this again… don’t you see how much you’re hurting?” The problem is that this inner dialogue seldom speaks with compassion and patience. Usually, the tone is harsh, judgmental and disempowering.

So instead of helping us, as the critic intended, it hurts us more. Sometimes the self-condemnation becomes so strong that our very identity is threatened. By putting us down we could forget our unique strengths and inherent value.

Furthermore, assigning blame greatly simplifies the story and denies the complex nuances of the situation. How can you ever understand what happened if the only important aspect becomes who is to blame?

You see, harsh self-blame is much more a process of self-defeat rather than one of harm prevention.

During the crisis you must therefore pay careful attention to how you mentally address yourself. By observing your thoughts you can distance yourself from the negative self-talk.

In the next step you can learn to offer yourself kind and patient words of understanding. Imagine your most compassionate friend and be that person to yourself. “It’s okay. I know this is really hard right now. Anyone in my shoes would suffer right now. I love myself and because of that I am allowed to be kind to myself”.

For many people who have been criticizing themselves their whole life this will sound strange and may even cause resistance. However, the way you talk to your self is no trivial matter for both your recovery from a crisis and overall happiness.

5) Practicing gratefulness

During the crisis your painful thoughts and emotions will consume most of your attention. At times, they will become so dominant that everything else seems to fade into irrelevance.

If you carefully reflect you will see that not all is bad. By practicing gratitude for the good things in life you allow the crisis its space but also take away some of its inflated self-importance.

While you go through your daily routine during the crisis try to open your eyes to what you can be thankful for. What brings you joy? What do you take for granted that you would miss dearly if it went away?

Next, you can make a list, mentally or on paper, of all people you feel most grateful for. A sense of joy and happiness can come from this because you realize that you are not alone and that beautiful things are still part of your life, despite the crisis. You can also thank them for being there.

Practicing gratitude makes the burden of the crisis a little bit lighter.

6) Changing the perspective on the crisis itself

And finally, after you’ve made room for the emotions that show up, you can take a step back at look at the situation like an interested observer. This time is also a chance to reflect, make meaning and learn. While it may be hard to see it that way now later you may come to realize that the crisis was perhaps also a vehicle for personal growth.

When you look back at your life and wonder, what were the times you’ve changed the most, when you’ve learned something so profound that nothing was ever quite the same, what were those times? How were they like? Happy and bright? Or difficult and dark?

Albert Camus beautifully said: “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.”

Practice emotional first aid to deal with the crisis

How you behave during the crisis and in the time that follows will determine how you will get out.

All crises are different and one-fits-all solutions don’t exist. Someone at the end of a relationship is in a different situation than someone who lost his job. You will have to find a combination of things that work for you.

Like a psychological first aid kid, these principles can help you deal with the painful situation.

For now, focus on doing your emotional homework and taking very good care of yourself. Slowly, you start going on with your life.

Time will see to the rest.

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