When Crisis Hits
Recently I experienced the biggest crisis to befall me in the last 4 years. It sounds dramatic: well, it is and it isn’t. Isn’t because no one died or got seriously hurt and is because it hit me like a ton of bricks, and quite unexpectedly too.
One of the ways I process things is through writing, which has often taken the form of articles in the past few years. The details of the crisis aren’t that important, and could even be distracting, but I hope it might be helpful for others to describe what I experienced physically, emotionally and cognitively AND what I did to make it through.
The Advent of Crisis
For some of us we can foresee a crisis looming and for others, we can’t. This time I fell into the latter camp, as in having a pleasant day and then…WHAM! Totally and completely unexpected. Suddenly, I felt drastically askew, completely sideways and reeling. “I must be in hell,” I thought.
The bizarre part about it all was that despite the profundity of what I was feeling, I was aware of what was going on physically, emotionally and cognitively, even making mental notes. I guess that is what one would call a therapist in crisis.
I deliberately didn’t do a bunch of research on crisis for this article, as I wanted to keep things ‘local,’ and hopefully relatable. But suffice it to say, there is variation around how folks experience crisis. Everyone is unique in their experience.
The Body Reacts
Physical symptoms were the first player on the scene. For me I experienced different things; some symptoms were happening simultaneously, others would come and go, others would be more consistent. I noticed:
- Lack of body sensation, numbness, sensation of paralysis (initially)
- Tightness in the chest, shoulders
- Back and nerve pain
- Physical slowness – sensation of walking underwater; taking ages to complete basic physical tasks
- Shortness of breath
- Dry mouth, increased thirst
- Complete lack of interest in food, despite the presence of some physical hunger cues
- Numbness in the arms and hands
Again, everyone is different. I experienced the following:
- A sense of horror
- Intense fear / panic
- Grief, sadness
I also noticed that emotions would come and go and just when I thought one had cycled through it would come back or be replaced by another equally intense emotion. And yes, certain emotions did ultimately fade.
Thoughts Play Out
Cognitively, my brain was reeling and my thoughts were racing. I:
- Worried about the future and catastrophized by playing out disaster scenarios in my mind
- Repeatedly replayed the details of what had happened and attempted to recall details that were fuzzy
- Attempted to trace exactly where things had gone wrong
- Went through my various emotions and tried to make sense of why I was feeling them
I was also
- Slow to process daily life tasks
The Survival Instinct
And despite the presence of all the above, the instinct to survive, to make it through, was still there even though making the effort to keep myself moving forward felt overwhelming at times.
What I Chose to Do:
- I reached out. I identified key support people in my life and I wrote them an email, describing exactly what had happened and asking them for their support. I felt so vulnerable doing this!
- I accepted their support, which came in various forms: return emails, phone calls, texts, visits, food offerings, lengthy conversations and practical help with tasks related to the crisis. I was and continue to be deeply grateful for the caring that was extended to me. At no point was anyone judgmental, which can perhaps be attributed to disclosing only to trustworthy people and me not projecting ideas on others that they were judging (when they weren’t).
- Learned. I identified, in the most practical way possible, any changes that could be made to improve the situation for future.
- I Chose “Movement.” I embraced an “active activity” in an attempt to cut through the overwhelming urge to remain frozen and motionless in my body. For me it was sorting through and thrifting belongings.
- Acceptance of Thoughts and Feelings. It can be tempting, when you’re a counsellor, to feel that you have to be superhuman in some way, that counsellors should somehow be ‘evolved’ to the extent that they no longer experience certain thoughts and feelings. Adding self-judgment, whether you are a counsellor or not, interferes with acceptance because judging our thoughts and feelings moves us away from acceptance. Judgement also increases our emotional attachment to particular mental states and conditions, which increases our distress, particularly when these longed-for emotions are not occurring. But I would also like to add that accepting our non-acceptance and judgment is just as important. It’s where we’re at, and we’re accepting that, right?
- Practiced Self Compassion. During this crisis I had to keep reminding myself to be kind to myself. There were times when I wondered whether I deserved that kindness but I told myself that at the very least, I would avoid beating myself up so as not to complicate things further. Besides, self-flagellation is rarely empowering and doesn’t help encourage us to move through crisis.
- Poured on the Self-Care. I took whatever opportunity I could get to take extra good care of myself. I had lots of cups of tea, extra hot water bottles, kept eating (small) meals and slept when my body could sleep. I was interested to note that some of my usual go-to self-care activities held little interest to me, which I found strange, but decided not to fret about that.
- I processed. I talked and wrote a lot, both of which helped me make sense of what was happening.
- Spiritual Practice. My spiritual beliefs and meditation helped me make sense of what was going on as did talking with friends who also shared this spiritual perspective.
- I Attempted to Stay Present. I noticed my mind would shift frequently to thoughts of the future, particularly worrisome scenarios. I made a conscious effort to keep bringing my mind back to the here and now, recognizing that—at least for me—nothing that productive comes out of angst-ridden planning attempts.
Certainly my process around crisis may not mirror yours or even resemble it in any way. It goes without saying that some situations require support beyond what I’ve described above. If you are in the Vancouver area, the following resources may be of some use:
- The Vancouver Crisis Centre or 1-800-SUICIDE
- Vancouver Access and Assessment Centre (AAC) at Vancouver General Hospital (24/7)
- Your local hospital emergency department
- Professional Counselling
I am very touched by the number of people who expressed concern about me since this article was published. I just want to assure folks that while I continue to work through some emotional residue from the crisis, I am doing well. If anything, this experience has increased my gratitude for all the good people in my life, both personally and professionally. Thank you.
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