5 Ways to Thrive When Life Feels Chaotic and Uncertain

Standing in the Storm

“All great changes are preceded by chaos.” ~Deepak Chopra

A personal tempest blew through the doors and windows of my life, and I am forever changed. Think major upheaval in every area of your life. Conjure Dorothy Gale, Robinson Crusoe, Job, yeah them.

In the process, I’ve learned that the disorienting storms of life are not just about survival but of learning to thrive. It is not in spite of daunting circumstances that we grow but because of them.

For three years, painful and unexpected events descended all at once. My long-term marriage, often filled with anger, hurt, mistrust, and not surprisingly, a lack of intimacy, was imploding. My teenage son, who had been very ill, was hospitalized.

In the midst of this, my three children and I moved from our family home of twenty years to a new town. When things seemed to quiet down, my eldest daughter was diagnosed with a chronic and life-altering disease. Oh yes, and I was restarting a career.

Chaos. The utter confusion left in in its wake caused me to stop and reevaluate many of my assumptions about myself and life.

What made this period even more difficult to endure was a sense of abandonment by some whom I thought would always be there, yet perhaps through a sense of helplessness or their own fears could not. Maybe they thought I was contagious. I started to wonder about that myself.

The irony of all of this was, through the lens of the outside world, my life had been seemingly idyllic before. Or had it?

I began to see that my tendency to avoid chaos at all costs lead me right into the belly of it. As humans, we desire harmony and seek order, in our surroundings, our relationships, and in our daily routines. We all crave certainty.

I found the paradox is that when you cling to the illusion of safety, you chain your ability to change.

I also discovered several anchors that kept me grounded in the midst of feeling uprooted. In fact, they never failed me.

Here is what I’ve learned that “worked’ consistently:

1. Surrender.

This is a difficult concept to grasp on an emotional level. This is because we are hard wired, evolutionarily, to fight or to flee when experiencing turmoil. This response served us very well when we were being chased by saber tooth tigers. Unfortunately, it creates more conflict internally.

It takes courage to allow strong uncomfortable feelings, whether grief, anger, or loneliness, to just be instead of trying to force them away. But acceptance brings relief.

2. Meditate.

Someone once told me to meditate as if my life depended on it. I do, because it does. Desperation does wonders. My more formal practice consists of twenty minutes in the morning and twenty minutes in the early evening, sitting quietly and focusing on my breathing. If my mind is especially active on any given day, I use my “mantra” (the word joy) as I breathe.

Throughout the day, I strive to practice mindfulness, which simply means to bring my full presence to all that I do. Conscious attention to each activity and interaction brings a calm to my mind and heart. It brings me back to myself.

Another meditation technique I found to be extremely helpful during a sea change of hard times is the meditative practice called tonglen.

Our pain can feel such a heavy burden at times. Tonglen helps by easing the sometimes intense sense of our own suffering by powerfully connecting us with the struggles of others.

Instead of primarily focusing on our own set of difficulties, we purposefully visualize and take on the suffering of others on the in-breath and release happiness for them on the out breath.

It may sound counterintuitive, but I found it relieved me of my own sense of isolation and gave me the gift of perspective. It also helps me to develop greater compassion for myself and others.

3. Observe nature.

When a storm is coming, they hunker down. They prepare the best they can. Birds’ nests and beavers’ dams are fortified. Food is foraged. They don’t foolishly (read: egotistically) try to soldier on.

They wait it out. They trust the process.

When our own personal storms occur, we simply do what we need to do to protect ourselves. For me, that means to stop rushing around accomplishing “one more thing.” I take safety in the shelter of my own home, having stores of healthy and comfort food on hand, books and magazines for fun and for personal growth to read, and the perennial elixir, bath salts, to recharge.

I do not have to fully understand in the moment why or how the storm came to be or if there is a lesson to be learned from it. I simply have to get out of harm’s way. We can analyze to no avail now knowledge that will come effortlessly to us in retrospect.

4. Lean on others.

We all know that family and friends are often a precious salve during times of crisis, change, or loss. Reach out. Stay connected. And realize that if you can’t immediately find someone to give you the kind of support you need, there are those to help you see the situation with new eyes.

People came into my life during this period, serendipitously so, who were engaging, loving, and continue to help me expand and grow. The universe opens up a host of unexpected resources when you risk being vulnerable.

5. Keep the insights.

Some amazing realizations emerge during these times of struggle. We learn what’s truly important and to let the rest go.

Cliché as it may sound, my health and well-being and those that I love are paramount, and I treat them as such. It’s very difficult to be happy or effect positive changes in the world if you are in some state of dis-ease.

I’ve discovered the vitality of finding moments and experiences in life’s everyday activities that lift my spirit and make me smile. My morning cup of coffee, the soft fur on my old dog’s face, the bright pink rose bush against the white picket fence out my study window, all perfect in their simple abundance.

As I practiced healthy behaviors like meditation, exercising, eating well, and other avenues available on the road of loving self-care, I began to heal and see situations improving.

I also discovered that in order to cultivate this deeper, more meaningful life, I found I must maintain these practices. When things are going well, I tend to relax my vigilance. Some of the old behaviors of mismanaging stress creep in. Complacency has been a stubborn roadblock on the journey.

There is where change can be my friend. It doesn’t allow me to be complacent. If change is accepted in this spirit, it can be a catalyst for greatness. Buddhist nun Pema Chodron affirms that “to be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.” In fact, it is the only way to learn how to fly.

Looking back on my life before all the chaos, I realized I was chasing status in my work and even my family life, and choosing security (an illusion at best) over listening to my heart.

Now I listen without jumping to conclusions or searching for quick fix solutions. I enjoy strong and vibrant relationships with my children, knowing I don’t ultimately control outcomes. I am currently in a partnership where we encourage each other to grow and risk and be vulnerable.

My work is now more like a calling than a job, providing me with rare and wonderful opportunities to engage with people about their own personal journeys and how they make meaning in their life.

I am amazed by the profound ways my life has “taken off,” unimagined by me, still in mid-flight.

Photo by Eddi van W

About Katherine McHugh

Katherine McHugh, M.A., is a writer, lecturer, and experienced retreat leader. Currently writing a book on the history and practices of forgiveness across religions and cultures, you can find her sometimes mild musings on her blog, Nun Tuck’s Almanac.  Katherine is the founder of AWAKEN Meditation and Stress Reduction Training,

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  • Padmini

    I could relate to this post so well. Well written! I used to resist change all my life, actually no, I used to hate not knowing, good or bad, I had this need to know. But now, having learned to live with the uncertainty, I enjoy it.

  • Paul in Canada

    Fantastic article – the truth so clearly written. Thanks

  • Judith

    Thank you. A well-timed article for me to reflect on.

  • barb

    This article is so well written and full of wisdom. So much of this I learned while taking care of my sick son. Even through his death all of this holds true. Especially acknowledging your emotions and allowing our other children to express theirs as well. For 12 years we lived in chaos and would not change a thing. Thank you for sharing

  • Nelly

    Thank you for this article. Life has been quite chaotic for me the past couple of years. On top of all the chaos, I battle anxiety. I’m making a great effort to accept the challenges that life has thrown at me and use them in order to grow as a person. I am definitely going to reflect on the article and incorporate these tips into my life.

  • Lisa Michele Fonseca

    Thanks so much for sharing! I love that you were able to ignore what we were taught by society and our culture (be independent, stand on your own 2 feet, never give up) and by doing the opposite, were able to find peace and strength. More proof that we need to ignore the “shoulds” we learn and trust what feels right to us. Again, many thanks!

  • lv2terp

    Wonderful tips, thank you so much for sharing your experience, and insight!!! 🙂

  • Jai

    Excellent article 🙂 thank you 🙂

  • I really appreciate your story – that all this beauty and wonder happened as a result of the loss and chaos, perhaps because of the practices you mentioned above! I particularly liked the one about observing how animals “hunker down” during chaos and don’t go running around with stressed-out to-do lists. Good point.

  • Katherine

    Hi Liz, Thank you! And it is often wise to watch the animals and do as they do, my dear old golden retriever reminds by her behavior to “Just breath” and greet everybody with a “Boy, am I excited to see you!”

  • Katherine

    Thanks Jai, much appreciated. And you’re welcome!

  • Katherine

    You are welcome and they are definitely are tried and true from my own personal experience.

  • Katherine

    I’m so glad Judith. :))

  • Katherine

    Good luck Nelly.
    I suffered in my teens and twenties from anxiety and it can be one heavy monkey on your back (an understatement sometimes, right?) I did find meditation to help immensely, and keeps it from creeping back, as it likes to do from time to time.

    The outdoors too, whenever you can manage it, always soothes the nervous system. Wishing you peace.

  • Katherine

    Hi Barb,

    I am so sorry to hear of your son’s death. You are a remarkable woman, of peserverance and courage. It’s always good to know a “sister” (or a brother:) who has survived the most difficult of challenges and is still seeing the blessings.

    Wishing you love

  • Katherine

    Thanks Paul!

  • Katherine

    Great! You already are a tiny buddha then :)) Embracing the reality of uncertainty gives us a certain freedom, and it is what IS anyway, right?

  • Nicole

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I am going to try the tonglen meditation technique. My mind wanders when I try to meditate so this seems like it will help me focus. I especially liked how you referenced animals’ reactions to storms and how they hunker down, and how you said you seek shelter in your own home. I imagined being cozy by a fire with a good book to read, on a dark, rainy night. But I have a question for you…what if someone doesn’t have their own home and that’s part of the chaos they are experiencing? I feel very uprooted and uncertain right now; I’d give anything for a little routine, a shred of certainty, and a place I could call my own.

  • Harmony

    Exactly what I needed to read today! I’m going though a big change and sometimes it’s been difficult for me to just stay at home and relax on the weekend. I don’t want to do anything and yet I hate wasting time doing ‘nothing’. I am reminded that it’s okay to take this time for myself to heal; to meditate, and do yoga, write in my journal, read a book, go for a walk in nature. In fact, it’s essential!!

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  • Dee

    I happened to stumble upon this article twice, while going through some heavy stuff in my life. Your words are inspiring and easily relatable. There are some things you said that hit the nail on the head for me and gives me hope to pull through when for the longest time, I believed that there was no light at the end of the tunnel. Beautifully written.

  • Angela

    This is one of the most meaningful pieces of writing I’ve read in quite some time. It has greatly opened my eyes to the skewed view I had of “chaos” as some difficult times have led me to feel completely overwhelmed. Changing perspective is all it takes to get through this. Wow. I needed this today. Thank you!