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Let Go and Experience Life: 8 Ways to Stop Living in Crisis Mode

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“I vow to let go of all worries and anxiety in order to be light and free.” ~Thich Nhat Han

My dad had been ill, in and out of the hospital for a couple of weeks, when my mother called with news that he had been airlifted from their local hospital to a larger regional medical center. My dad suffered from Crohn’s Disease for nearly fifty years at that point and was experiencing severe abdominal pain believed to be from a perforation of his bowel.

We would learn over the next few hours that even surgery to remove a malignant tumor was not guaranteed to save his life.

Throughout the long night, my mom and brother, along with my partner and I, shared a grim, poorly lit room reserved for families of emergency surgery patients.

Throughout the trauma of that first night and the days that followed, I made it my mission to normalize, plan, and cope. I called relatives and kept those closest to my dad up to date. I paid for hotel rooms for my mom and brother, neither of whom could afford to stay overnight near the hospital.

I became a caregiving overachiever, connecting personally with the nursing staff but careful to not be too pushy.

My visits coincided with physician rounds where I asked questions and kept detailed notes. Once back at work as a librarian, I used online medical databases to get all the journal articles I could find about my dad’s condition.

I built a fortress of information for reassurance. For the next eighteen months, I accompanied my parents to specialist appointments and tried in every way possible to make life normal. I paid their bills when they could not and funded the expensive health insurance my father now required due to his condition.

Desperate problem solving became normal, necessary, and my job. What I didn’t realize, though, was the permanent adjustment I was making to a “high alert” status.

In this fear-based mode of living, I was on constant lookout for any sign of danger so I could switch into containment mode, minimizing discomfort as fast as possible.

When my father‘s cancer recurred after a period of relatively good health, we were all devastated. He died nine months after the recurrence, withdrawn and sad, while receiving hospice care at home. I felt like I had failed to keep everyone safe.

As I grieved in the months and years that followed, I transferred the high alert skills to my job as a project manager, priding myself on my ability to see risks well ahead of others. I thought this protected me from uncertainty and, consequently, fear and anxiety.

In fact, it ratcheted my alert status up to an even higher level—one that ultimately proved unsustainable. After nearly a year of leading a highly visible and high stakes project, I found myself sitting on the couch one morning, paralyzed by a combination of fear, sadness, and rage. 

I was unable to get ready for work. My big project had stalled, I was terrified of displeasing my boss, and I was angry that I couldn’t see my way clear of these problems. There was no bright line to the future.

I learned that these crisis moments offer opportunities to practice letting others help us and learn new ways of living. Here are 8 strategies that have helped me: 

1. Find a neutral advocate.

Objective outside support is crucial during a crisis period. Friends and family can often recommend a life coach, therapist, or spiritual advisor with whom they have worked. If you are reluctant to talk with friends, you can use social networking tools like LinkedIn to see if someone in your network is connected to an individual who can help.

2. Practice mindfulness.

There’s value in focusing on our breath to quiet the turmoil in our minds. Look for a meditation or spiritual center that offers a basic class in meditation, mindfulness, or prayer. Even ten minutes each day in quiet reflection will improve your focus, resiliency, and peace of mind.

3. Replenish yourself.

You might be depleted from years of constant vigilance and striving. Commit to leave at the end of your workday, at least a few days a week, even if everything isn’t done. Reconnect with parts of yourself that you haven’t seen for a while by watching a favorite movie or surrounding yourself with your favorite color.

4. Try another perspective.

Most people are doing their best but are primarily caught up in the storyline of their own lives. Even thirty seconds of viewing a situation from another’s point of view can diffuse your negative inner dialogue about a person or situation.

5. Know your limits.

When you are feeling pressured or negative, check to see if you are tired, hungry, or otherwise not feeling well. Avoid pushing through these feelings and stop your activity. Return to your situation later when you are feeling more refreshed.

6. Make something.

Many of us lose touch with our creative self as work and family commitments take more of our energy.  Working with our hands can effectively pull us out of a mental rut and create pride in our own abilities.  Handcrafts like sewing, knitting, embroidery, as well as woodworking, cooking, pottery making, and home improvement projects are all satisfying ways to feel purposeful.

7. Look for like-minded folks.

Connect with new friends and old acquaintances that are calm, self-aware, and in touch with their own unique humanity. Finding others to share interests and a good laugh provides a balance to the more stressful aspects of life.

8. Reconnect with your love.

Create opportunities to deepen your conversations beyond the rushed and sometimes business-like communication of daily life. Increasing conversational intimacy will strengthen intimacy throughout your relationship.

After a long day, when you’re tired and have slipped back into old patterns and reactions, remember that these techniques are like muscles that get stronger each time you use them.

Photo by Sagisen

About Kelli Koob

Kelli Koob is a cook, writer, and artist practicing mindfulness and meditation. She makes a living as a change manager and project developer for local government. She lives with her partner and pets in Minneapolis. Follow her on Twitter @coco63.

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  • Joan Harrison

    You show incredible self awareness along with compassion and empathy for others Kelli, I found your story incredibly moving and uplifting at the same time!
    It is so true once we learn a new way of thinking with practice it grows exactly like a muscle being trained!

  • Veganese

    My own experience of caring is similar to your own, Kelli. I too became very business-like in attempts to secure a quality future for my son, who has Asperger’s Syndrome. Over a period of 7 years, as well as establishing learning at home for him, I researched intensively for funding for his education when no state support was available. Following this, my mother had a stroke, 8 weeks later I found myself having emergency surgery for appendicitis, followed by more surgery for a fractured wrist, within 4 months. I continue to support my elderly parents, grandchildren and son but with much less ability due to anxiety issues which began 3 years ago.

    Nowadays, I try to be mindful of my needs, and advise all my family to monitor their own. When I see people running here and there, not stopping, I want to shout ‘Please think about what you’re doing, it’s not worth it’. Most people don’t imagine it will happen to them, that they are invincible.

  • Thank you Kelli for sharing your story. Your list of strategies is essential.

    Even more so for someone who was a caregiver to his/her partner. Even if it looks like in this situation strategy #8 above – reconnecting with your love – is no longer possible. Only, it is:

    Re-connecting with your love is absolutely still possible. It does however require you to rewire in deep ways so to speak. It requires you to transform your relationship with yourself as well as your relationship with love. You must let your love find its way back to you. You must find your way back to you.

    The strategies above will definitely help in that process.

    Many warm greetings –

    Halina

  • Loved this post, Kelly, which so clearly reflects your mindfulness practice. I think #2 is the basis for taking action on all of your other list items. We need to get quiet to be able to pinpoint which is the “true” voice of our hearts in order to take right action.

    I stumbled upon my neutral advisor quite by accident when I was recovering from a mastectomy four years ago. I downloaded a bunch of audio books onto my iPod, among them Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth: Awakening To Your Life’s Purpose. I had never heard of him, and simply thought he’d be giving me career advice for $4.99 while I was gardening!

    Tolle’s teachings taught me to recognize the ego voice in my head, gave me the courage to ignore it, and showed me that fear and anxiety are always based on past or future, rather than what is happening right now (the only “real” thing we have). I’ve learned to take action where I can and let go of the rest. It’s been transformative for me.

    The only other thing I would add to your list is to try to recognize good that has come out of seemingly “bad” things. Trivial example today: my sewage system is backing up in my basement bathroom even as I type this (the plumber is on his way). It’s a situation (not a crisis), fixed by a phone call, with the silver lining that it will finally force me to get the carpet cleaned down there! It really takes the energy out of a perceived “problem” or “crisis”.

    And through blogs like this, I’m connecting with like-minded people. So much fun, and incredibly nourishing! Thanks so much!

  • Kelli Koob

    Thanks, Martha, I’m a fan of Tolle also. You are so right about good coming out of “bad.” Take care

  • Kelli Koob

    Wise comments, Halina. Thank you.

  • Kelli Koob

    Thank you for your kind words of support and encouragement!

  • barticagirl

    this is really helpful , only after reading this that I come to realize that what is happening to me was I have put myself into crisis mode and have been there for a long, long time. Some or most of the pointers I plan to practice. thanks for sharing

  • Thanks you Kelli for sharing such a personal story. Lately I’ve felt an out-of-control spiral starting, but I’ve been in the crisis mode you describe above–trying to conquer every task that comes my way. Between family, work, and other personal projects it seems there are all these spinning plates that I’m trying to keep in control. All of your points are critical, especially #2 which makes me aware of the fact that I’m in crisis mode. What scares me is that I really didn’t perceive the fact that I’m not really in good control of these things. I just kept pushing forward blindly thinking that the more I took on the better things would be (I suppose that’s the language of crisis mode).

  • Kelli Koob

    I really relate to what you are saying, Jeff, and appreciate that you have shared this with me and others. It is so helpful to hear from others who are working through similar difficulties and to know that we support each other.

  • Kelli Koob

    Thanks for letting me know this connected for you. Best wishes!

  • I went to one funeral, and I reached in my suit pocket (I just have the one suit), and there was still a funeral bulletin from the last funeral we’d all been to.

    These are all great pieces of advice.

    I am working really hard at lucky number seven right now. I’m alternating attendance between a Dharma Center and a UU Church and I’m also participating in an Eckhart Tolle reading group (all this after false starts in various scenes that were wrong).

    I still feel a vague sense of crisis hit me sometimes though. But, maybe it exists for its own sake. Every feeling has to make its appearance at the party. Hopefully they’ll find my home too calm and move along.