Take Control of Life's Crises Today!Robert Haynes, PhD


Chapter Titles

Chapter 1    Crises Are Present Daily in Life

Chapter 2    How People Respond in a Crisis

Chapter 3    Assessing How You Handle Crisis Situations

Chapter 4    Preparing Yourself to Handle Crisis Situations

Chapter 5    The Role of Resilience in Coping With Crises

Chapter 6    Recovering From a Crisis and Practicing Effective Self-Care

Chapter 7    For Parents: Preparing Your Child to Cope With a Crisis

Chapter 8    For Teachers: Preparing Yourself and Your Students for a Crisis

Chapter 9    For First Responders: Preparing Yourself to Manage Crises on the Job



Crises Are Present in Daily Life

Most of us expect life to be good, easy, fun, and trouble-free; and we are surprised when it isn’t. We all experience minor crises on a daily basis—the kids, the job, money problems, plumbing problems, relationship issues, and more. We also experience larger, less frequent crises from time to time—natural disasters, a car accident, bankruptcy, divorce, and death. A crisis is any significant event or experience that occurs in your life that is stressful for you. It can be positive (a job promotion) or negative (a flat tire on the interstate).

Crises seem to be coming at us at an ever-increasing and alarming rate: the Newtown school shooting, the largest tornado ever recorded, the Boston Marathon bombings, three young women kidnapped in Cleveland and enslaved for 10 years. In the fall of 2012, the Northeast suffered through Superstorm Sandy, followed a few months later by a massive snowstorm. The National Weather Service reported that the United States broke the record for billion-dollar weather disasters in one year with 12 occurring in 2011. We experienced twisters, floods, snow, drought, heat, and wildfires with unprecedented frequency. Each of these events takes a major toll on those caught in them.

Historically, we have thought of crises as rare events, but with 24/7 news reporting on cable channels, alerts on our smartphones, and Internet access to the world, we are learning that there is a crisis somewhere in the world every minute of the day—tsunamis, starving children, rioting, school shootings, corrupt politicians, and murders by drug cartels, to name just a few. With the constant barrage of graphic details and the overwhelming extent and severity of the crises we hear about on a daily basis, we may become numb and lose our compassion for those we see suffering.

Because crises are a part of our everyday life, it is in our best interest to learn to handle them effectively—it is time for you to Take Control of Life’s Crises Today! I hope to provide you with the knowledge and skills to enable you to better handle every crisis that occurs in your life. Let me begin by describing a crisis in my own life, and how I handled it poorly and what I learned from that experience.

I Was a Basket Case When It Came to My Own Crisis

I lay in the hospital bed following a radical prostatectomy—surgical removal of the prostate gland laced with cancer—watching the seconds slowly tick by on that big elementary school style clock that now reads 2:10 a.m. The second hand pauses briefly with every tick. Every second now feels like a minute, every minute an hour. I have been in this bed now for 30 days straight; well, actually 30 hours, but it seems like 30 days. I resume reading an inconsequential story in a magazine. After a while I look up at my nemesis, the clock, and 2 minutes have passed. I am connected to a heart rate monitor that sounds an alarm every time my heart rate goes above 125 beats per minute. So far tonight, I must have sounded the alarm three dozen times. All I have to do is think irrationally about being confined to this bed for weeks or maybe months, perhaps a lifetime, and the alarm sounds again. My mind is controlling how my body reacts.

I like to think I handle crisis situations fairly well. I stay calm and do what needs doing in most situations. But this crisis “poked a button” for me, and I was unable to manage—I felt and acted a little crazy. Effective self-management enables us to feel in control and provides us with a sense of mastery. It allows us to influence, if not determine, the outcome of the crisis and the impact it will have on our life. Most of us handle some situations better than others, and some situations do not rise to the level of a crisis. But when we are in a crisis, we need to have a game plan in place, and I simply did not have one.

Finally, after what seems like 2 more days (it is now 2:30 a.m.), I signal the nurse with my combo remote TV control and nurse call button. When she arrives at my bedside, I tell her that I seem to be a little anxious and maybe I could have a sleeping pill. She cracks a slight smile and says, “Yes, we’ve been watching your heart rate jump around all night.” I go on to say that I am quite anxious about never getting out of this hospital and ask if I could also have something to ease the neurotic anxiety. She says there are no orders for any such medications, so I go back to reading, watching mindless early morning TV, playing a handheld video game, and watching the seconds tick by ever so slowly as I listen to the periodic screech of the heart rate monitor alarm.

The first evening after surgery and the next day as well, I had experienced low blood pressure and had fainted once shortly after sitting up in a chair the first day and nearly did the same the second day. My doctor thought it was a reaction to the anesthesia and ordered that I remain flat on my back until my blood pressure stabilized. A nightmare of fears cascaded through my mind. What if I am confined to bed for the rest of my life? I did a hundred “what if” scenarios in my mind—what if returning to normal blood pressure takes a week, what if it takes a month, what if it never returns to normal? Will they leave me flat on my back, which is already stiff and sore from the surgery and from the lack of movement? Maybe there is something more seriously wrong requiring further surgery? With every crazy thought, the heart rate monitor screeches. Then I became anxious about the alarm going off, and that anxiety alone was enough to shoot adrenaline through my body again and again, activating the alarm.

That night I was impressed by the power of my mind to talk myself into a frenzy about a range of irrational fears. I knew I was needlessly spiking my anxiety, but I just couldn’t stop. The more I worried about my escalating anxiety and my seeming inability to control my thoughts, the more frequently the alarm screeched in my ears.

By 6:00 a.m. I was able to sit up on my rock-hard hospital bed. I stayed upright with my wife, Cheryl, watching to see if I would again become light-headed and faint. But I was OK. After 20 minutes, I stood up, and a nurse assessed my condition and thought we should try to walk down the hall, which I did successfully. I felt like a king, like I had conquered the world, like I could now take on anything! By noon I was home in my own comfy recliner, feeling as though the weight of the world was off my shoulders, and feeling rather foolish for my “crazy” behavior in the hospital.

Lessons Learned

I have thought about that night in the hospital bed many times since then. This experience was one of several reasons I wanted to write this book. Was it a crisis? It didn’t have to be, but it became a crisis for me. I made this temporary situation into a catastrophic event just because of what I thought and said to myself. By imagining all kinds of fears and improbable scenarios, my night in the hospital became a nearly intolerable situation for me. I look back on that night and am surprised by my fear and anxiety, and wonder how I might have managed the situation better. Had I been more prepared mentally and emotionally, might I have been able to simply go to sleep like any other night and wake up rested and ready to go home?

As a psychologist, I have worked with people in crisis situations and helped them manage, debrief, and recover from emergency situations. We, as a profession, have learned a considerable amount about what happens to emotions, thoughts, behaviors, and reactions in a crisis, and how all of that affects the way people respond. We have learned about resilience following a crisis—some people recover more easily but others face posttraumatic stress reactions and are not able to recover well. Some of these crises are major—death, disasters, bankruptcy, divorce, health problems—and some are minor—how to reorganize the garage, what to say in the job interview, how to cope with unruly children—but we all encounter situations that can spiral out of our control. If we were better prepared to handle these situations, we would have more self-confidence, more of a sense of mastery over our lives, and be more resilient in recovering from life’s challenges.

My Goal for This Book

The aim of this book is to help you become better prepared to successfully master crisis situations in your life—the minor ones and the major ones—and to do so before they occur. You will learn more about your own style and skill level in handling crises, develop a system for better managing those life crises, and learn how to easily practice for future crises. Most of us have learned to drive a car. Many of us took a class before we ever got behind the wheel, but book knowledge was just not enough. Can you recall the first time you sat in the driver’s seat? For most of us, the exhilaration we thought we might experience quickly turned to fear and apprehension. It was only after gaining behind-the-wheel experience—practicing with someone helping us, experiencing those slick roads, near misses (or near collisions), stop signs we blew through without noticing—that we began to get a handle on how to manage this 4,000 pound bomb of steel and gasoline.

As I write this book, I am still learning and practicing as I go, with frequent flashbacks to that night in the hospital bed. I believe I am better prepared for the next crisis I will face, whether major or minor. I truly hope this book will provide you with the skills to successfully handle everyday crises in your life too. The goal is to better understand what is happening to us and how we can take charge to manage the situation with the least amount of wear and tear on ourselves and others.

Pick a Crisis, Any One at All

Learning to Handle an Everyday Crisis

Let’s look at an everyday kind of crisis that Rupie, a 37-year-old mother of two boys, faced. She heard a strange noise coming from the upstairs of her home. It was summer, and the ceiling fans and the TV were on. She turned them off, but she continued to hear the noise. As she got closer to her son’s room upstairs, the noise became louder. When she opened his closet door, a gush of water came surging at her. And the water kept flowing! At first as water ran into the room and began seeping through the floor into their family room downstairs, Rupie felt overwhelmed and confused about what was happening and why. She didn’t know quite what to do or how to proceed. In past crises, Rupie had been emotionally upset, overwhelmed, and was unable to formulate a plan. This time, however, she rallied. She told herself that the problem, although major, was fixable. She shifted her thinking from catastrophizing the event to saying, “I can do this, this is just an inconvenience, a nuisance, and it will get fixed.” Rupie was able to focus her thinking, and she summoned the next door neighbor to help her shut off the water to her house. Then she called her husband and the insurance company. Rupie was proud of her ability to shift her thinking in this crisis so she could fix the problem. She felt a sense of mastery and will most likely be better able to handle the next crisis that comes her way. It took nearly a month to get the damage to the walls, floors, and carpets repaired, but Rupie managed her way through that as well.

Can you identify with Rupie in this situation? Have you had similar experiences? How did you react? Were you able to rally the resources to resolve the situation?

How Would You Handle These Three Crises?

  • You have just been notified by the Forest Service that a forest fire is completely out of control and approaching your home in the mountains at an uncontrollable rate. The Fire Captain says, “You have 30 minutes to evacuate—take whatever you want with you, but you must be gone in 30 minutes because the fire will be rapidly upon us.” This is your dream home—a gorgeous log cabin nestled in the woods with a view of the lake in the distance. What would you take with you? What papers? What personal effects? What pictures and items of sentimental value? Where will you go—to a motel, a friend’s house, a family member’s house? Whom should you contact right away? Do you know where they are? What will you say—can you remain calm, should you be reassuring, or would you like to vent your fears and anxieties about evacuating? Do you even have time to call any one?
  • While driving on the highway, you see brake lights ahead and cars screeching to a halt. You slam on your brakes as well, but the guy behind you has been tailgating and smashes into the rear of your car. The impact drives your car into the rear of the car in front of you. You are not hurt, but your car is badly damaged. Are you feeling apprehensive, concerned, shocked, or just plain angry at the driver behind you who wasn’t driving safely? What will you do? Who should you call? Are there injuries? Is there any fire hazard? What is your plan?
  • Supermarket Bingo is a game we all play at the supermarket, at the bank, and at the post office. It is the process of choosing what you think will be the quickest checkout line, and no matter which line you choose that line ends up moving the slowest. As you wait for your turn to check out, what are you thinking and feeling? Can you be patient and calm, or are you fidgeting and becoming more annoyed at the seemingly endless wait?

For each of these different kinds of crises, consider the following questions:

  • What would you tell yourself about what is happening and what you need to do?
  • What are the most common emotions you feel in crisis situations? Do they help you or hinder your ability to handle the situation?
  • Have you faced similar situations in the past? How did you do? What can you learn about how you handled earlier crises?
  • What do you think you need to do to better prepare yourself for future major and minor crises?

We return to these questions in Chapter 3, so keep your responses in mind.

Two Plane Crash Scenarios

Do you ever wonder what you would do if faced with a crisis that threatens your life and possibly the lives of others? One of my favorite books is And I Alone Survived (1978),written by Lauren Elder about a life-changing experience that happened to her and two others in 1976. This true life story begins when Lauren boards a small Cessna 182 airplane with Jay Fuller, the pilot, and his companion, Jean Noller. They plan to fly from Oakland to Furnace Creek, a desert oasis resort in Death Valley National Park in southeastern California. Jay was an experienced pilot but miscalculated the location of the pass over the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and the plane crashed just before reaching the summit. Both Jay and Jean died before the first night was over due to their injuries and the subfreezing temperatures. Certain she would not survive if she remained at the crash site, Lauren hiked down the eastern face of the Sierras and across the high desert to the town of Independence, a trek of approximately 20 miles, much of it straight down the mountainside through fields of snow. For most it would be a terrifying and quite possibly fatal expedition, but Lauren, dressed in a skirt and low heels, conjured up the drive, the willpower, and the skill to navigate her way down the mountain and lived to tell her story. I have read the story several times, and I am always amazed at her courage and her indomitable will to live. What was she thinking and feeling? What did she do to overcome her doubts and forge a plan to survive? I wonder if I could be like her: could I make it, or would I surrender to the forces of nature and die on the mountain? How about you? Do you have what it takes to survive a crisis of that magnitude?

In a more recent life-threatening plane crash, in January 2009 US Airways Flight 1549 was only 90 seconds into the flight when it had to set down in the Hudson River after a flock of geese pounded the windshield and knocked out both engines. Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger said he felt an adrenaline rush right to the core of his being. In spite of this physical reaction to the crisis, he knew he had a job to do and did not allow his physical reaction to the crisis to distract him from the task at hand. He knew that no modern airliner had ditched in the water without fatalities. But due to the calm and organized thinking under stress of Captain Sullenberger and his crew, he was able to set the plane down intact and all passengers and crew miraculously survived. Could I do that? Could you? Can you maintain your calm in a major crisis?

The Tucson Shootings

On January 8, 2011, a lone gunman fired at U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords at near point blank range and then turned to the crowd that had gathered to hear her address and began firing randomly. Six people, including a 9-year-old girl died that day, and another 14 were injured. This shooting spree shocked the nation. Daniel Hernandez, just 20 years old and a college student interning for Representative Giffords, rushed to Giffords’ side and propped her up so she wouldn’t choke on her own blood. Doctors say Daniel’s actions may have saved Giffords’ life. He stayed with her in the ambulance and assured her that everything would be all right. Roger Salzgeber and 74-year-old retired Army National Guard Colonel Bill Badger, who also was injured, tackled the shooter. Joe Zamudio helped pin him to the ground. Sixty-one-year-old Patricia Maisch grabbed the magazine the shooter had dropped while trying to reload, and then knelt on his ankles. You don’t have to be a trained and seasoned emergency worker or law enforcement officer to respond effectively to a crisis. In the Tucson shooting, young and old alike were able to respond effectively. Could you? How do you think you would react in a situation like this shooting?

Newtown School Shooting

The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012, resulted in the deaths of 20 young children and 6 adults in the most horrific and deadly elementary school shooting ever. The tragedy led to disbelief, grief, and soul-searching around the globe. That event touched and saddened every one of us. Yet, in the darkness of tragedy, heroes emerged and reacted in a way that saved lives. The principal thought quickly under pressure and activated the school intercom so all could hear that something horrible was occurring and could seek shelter. Then the principal and school counselor charged the gunman in an attempt to stop him; they both lost their lives. Teacher Kaitlin Roig moved her 15 students into a small bathroom and barricaded the door. She was terrified and could hear the shooting nearby in the hallway and expected the gunman to come after her group next. Still, in the midst of this crisis, she comforted her kids saying, “There are bad guys out there, and we have to wait for the good guys to come. I love you all very much, and we will all be okay.” She said she wanted that to be the last thing they heard. She asked them to show her their smiles. When the police came, and fearing it was the gunman posing as police, she maintained her composure and asked them to slip their badges under the door and to get the key to the bathroom because the good guys would know where the keys are. Kaitlin did a magnificent job of acting and reacting with composure under extreme stress in a life-threatening situation. How was she able to pull that off? How do you think you would have handled that situation?

Some Everyday Crises

George is becoming more and more impatient with his sons, who are 13 and 16, and their “teenage attitude” that borders on being disrespectful and rude. He has talked with the boys about this in the past, but their attitude that mom and dad are stupid and set unrealistic limits on them is getting to be too much to endure.

Bryan and Shondra have been married for 2 years. They have solid jobs, but just don’t make enough to make ends meet financially. The credit card bills are mounting, and they were hoping to be able to save enough money to make a down payment on a house. Now that Shondra is pregnant, they are faced with tough decisions regarding their future financial security.

Mary is 70 years old, recently widowed, and has a nice apartment and a modest Social Security income. She was recently diagnosed with severe arthritis and is beginning to have difficulty getting around the apartment. She is feeling anxious and depressed as she faces aging and illness all by herself.

We can think of countless people who have faced the summit and overcome the immobilization that fear creates. Many have been heroic even in the face of extreme fear. We also may know people who have not been able to overcome. Who makes it, and who doesn’t? Do you have what it takes? Let’s take a look at what you need to know and do to better manage crisis situations and how this book can be of help to you.

Crisis Defined

This book is about stress and crisis in our lives. Stress can be defined as a feeling of strain and pressure which originates internally or externally. It may be acute or chronic. We could subjectively assign a score of 1-10 in terms of the level of stress the event incurs for us. Those stressful events at the higher end of the scale can be seen as a crisis. Crisisrefers to a significant event in life that is stressful, emotionally charged, requires decision making or intervention, taxes your coping mechanisms, and is something that you define as a crisis. A crisis can be a positive experience or a negative experience. It doesn’t have to be a forest fire, a flood, a death in the family—it can be your child bringing home a D grade, finding yourself in the throes of bankruptcy, or driving on a rain-slicked highway. It can be marriage problems, having a newborn baby, moving to a new home, or learning that your daughter is accepted to Stanford University (with its high tuition fees). Essentially, anything you perceive as a crisis IS a crisis for you. The perception of crisis is largely in the eye of the beholder.
“I guess I’m in a pickle without a paddle!” said a woman at the teller’s window who was trying to talk her way out of paying the late fees from failing to pay her credit card bill on time. Although the bank teller was trying to be kind, he explained that bank policies are what they are, and he couldn’t do anything about that. I guess I shouldn’t have been eavesdropping, but her story was actually quite compelling. She had medical expenses and had no insurance and was required to pay the full amount for every office visit and all lab work as well. She promised to pay the bank the day she received her next paycheck, but the teller said that just wasn’t good enough. She definitely was in a “pickle without a paddle” (or more accurately, “up a creek without a paddle” or “in a pickle”), and this was a crisis for her.
I heard from a good friend that he had been trying to get up the steam to organize and clean his garage ever since he retired. This crisis increases in severity every day that he procrastinates. The more he thinks about the task, the more immobilized he becomes, mainly because, as he says, “I just don’t know where to begin. If only I had a plan, and I knew how I would like to move ahead, I think I could do it.” But the longer he delays, the bigger this task becomes. Could we define this as a crisis? It is a crisis for him because he is feeling stressed by this seemingly insignificant yet foreboding task.

Maybe you have been laid off from your job, a situation not uncommon in recent times. Or if you haven’t, what would it be like if you were in that position? You have a family who depends on you for the financial support of housing and food. What would it be like to deal with the bank about foreclosure and to have to face the grim possibility of becoming homeless with your family? What would you do? What would those emotions be like for you? Many folks have faced this in recent years—some survive and make it, and others don’t. Why? Is it luck? Does it take courage? Intelligence? What is the key to their success in times of trouble?

The Best Predictor of Future Behavior Is Past Behavior

“The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.” This idea has served me well professionally over the years. I think it describes precisely what we each need to know about how we handle crises—how you have handled crises in the past, both minor and major, is most likely the best predictor of how you will handle crises in the future. First you need to obtain a baseline on how you do in a crisis—what your thoughts about the situation are, how you react emotionally, and how that affects your performance in responding. Assessing how you have been able to pull together and problem solve a crisis will help you identify your current abilities and help you devise a plan to improve your crisis handling abilities.

Practice is the key to improving your crisis management skills, just like practice in driving a car is really what makes you a good driver. “But how can I practice for a crisis?” you might ask. Life is full of daily situations we can use as our practice field—from dealing with the kids, to paying the bills on a limited budget, or sitting through gridlock on your daily commute to work. Although these situations may seem insignificant, we can use them as our practice field and begin to prepare to handle the larger crises, as well as minor ones, that life hands us.

If you practice crisis management through the activities suggested in the following chapters, you will be better able to handle nearly any crisis that comes along. You will be less stressed and anxious about those situations, and the result will be a more positive outcome for all involved. Have fun with this book, try to see the humor in the situations you may have mishandled, and be open to learning new ways to manage your life and your crises in a manner that will help you become more resilient, competent, and successful in your personal life.

Partial List of Topics Covered in Chapters 2-9

Chapter 2: How People Respond in a Crisis

In our lives we experience a variety of crises

Types of crises defined – human caused vs. non-human caused

How children react to crises

Identifying how you react in a crisis and why

Chapter 3: Assessing How You Handle Crisis Situations

Assessing how you would handle various crises

Defining the ideal, typical, and ineffective responses to a crisis

The essential elements of responses to a crisis

A self-assessment tool to assess your strengths and weaknesses in handling crises

Defining what you need to learn to improve your handling crises

Chapter 4: Preparing Yourself to Handle Crisis Situations

How your self-talk can help you handle crises

Categories of negative and positive self-talk

Learning to modify your self-talk

The power of effective thinking

Moving from reaction to action

Managing your emotional reaction in a crisis

Developing your action plan and acting with purpose

Ten steps for responding to crisis

Chapter 5: The Role of Resilience in Coping With Crises

Resilience defined as the ability to bounce back from a crisis

The role of resilience in coping with crisis

Where does resilience come from?

How does resilience work for us?

Assessing your level of resilience

How to become more resilient

Chapter 6: Recovering From a Crisis and Practicing Effective Self-Care

Expect a physical and emotional reaction from a crisis

Replaying events over and over in your mind

Steps in the recovery process

When to seek professional help

Posttraumatic stress disorder

The components of effective self-care

Taking better care of ourselves

Chapter 7: For Parents: Preparing Your Child to Cope With a Crisis

Are we too protective of our children?

How do children react to a crisis?

Helping our children cope with a crisis

Preparing your children for future crises

How to help your child become more resilient

Negative reactions to crises that children may experience

When and where to seek help

Chapter 8: For Teachers: Preparing Yourself and Your Students for a Crisis

General considerations regarding crisis in schools

Preparing yourself to handle a school crisis

Preparing students to handle crises

Guidelines for discussions with students about crises

Helping students during and after a crisis

Adverse reactions to watch out for and what to do

Guidelines for handling specific types of incidents in the school

Dealing with parents regarding crisis

Chapter 9: For First Responders: Preparing Yourself to Manage Crises on the Job

The culture of the first responder

What first responders can do to better prepare for crises

Understanding the impact your work has on your family

Acknowledge the dysfunctional aspects of the culture of toughness

Managing your emotional response to a crisis

Be prepared to have a reaction and learn how the recovery process works

Build resilience to help you better handle future crises

How to make healthy self-care work for you

Advice for new first responders