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3 Crisis-Coping Strategies for Surviving Tough Times
Sherry Johnson-Traver planned on taking an Alaskan cruise and traveling the world with her husband. But those plans changed when crisis struck. In 2007, just a day before their 14th wedding anniversary, her husband Ross died of lung cancer.
Johnson-Traver had been through tough times before: a divorce, job loss, major illness, death of her mother. But the death of her husband left her spinning and sad, overwhelmed by even the smallest things.
She couldn’t figure out how to use the remote Russ had programmed to turn on the outdoor lights. Buying a car was an ordeal. And she missed the companionship — someone to talk things over with after her work as a water aerobics instructor and secretary in a Sun City, Ariz., medical research lab.
Yet even during her bleakest days, when she didn’t feel like getting out of bed, Johnson-Traver, 61, knew deep down that she would survive the crisis, and she believed that the experience would somehow provide an opportunity for personal growth and even joy.
“At some point, I just decided that this is the way it is going to be,” she says. “Now, I have a brand new 'normal' and I make a decision every morning: It can either be a crappy day or a good day — it's all in your attitude and choice.”
How to change your mind to cope with crisis
Any change, even one with built-in benefits such as a marriage or a promotion, is difficult to deal with. A life crisis — bankruptcy, divorce, death, job loss — can be downright devastating and debilitating. Yet those who adopt a “growth mindset” and share Johnson-Traver’s go-get-’em attitude, even during those tough times, tend to fare better, says Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., psychologist and professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., who studies how people respond to challenges.
A growth mindset is the belief that you possess or have the ability to learn what you need to get through difficult times, Halvorson says. That doesn’t mean you’ll skate through the crisis easily or without pain, but growth-minded folks believe they will get through it. As a result, their periods of pain and despair tend to be shorter, and they have the energy and the clarity needed to take meaningful action and move forward.
It’s an attitude anyone can develop. In fact, graceful coping is as simple and as complicated as changing your mind and building positive beliefs, says Ariane de Bonvoisin, author of The First 30 Days: Your Guide to Making Any Change Easier. Those who manage best during times of trouble tend to not view it as trouble in the first place.
“Crisis is a very charged word, and remember words come with emotion and then we respond to that emotion,” de Bonvoisin says. “People who are good at change don’t use words like crises, disaster, horrific, worst-day ever. I think ‘life opportunity’ or ‘life challenge’ is a better phrase for these times. I’ve interviewed thousands who eventually tell me that their big life ‘crises’ were also their biggest gifts, turnarounds and breakthroughs.”
One way to drop the negative beliefs and foster a growth mindset is to look at the story you’re telling to yourself — and everyone else — then rewrite it to reflect the outcome you really want. How you talk to yourself influences how you’ll cope with change, de Bonvoisin says.
So stop telling yourself all the bad things about what happened and why. Give up the blame, let go of the bad-news storyline and make room for a new one that declares how you really want it to be. That shift in thinking will create action, movement and intention; it will also lead you to the people who will help you get to where you want to go.
3 strategies to get through tough times
Life’s greatest challenges also offer great opportunity, and it’s possible, even likely, that you’ll come through a crisis feeling more grateful, healthier, even happier than before. Here are some other crisis-coping strategies suggested by Halvorson and de Bonvoisin that can help you not only survive tough times but thrive despite the difficulties.
- Practice optimism and hope. Trust that things will work out. Acknowledge that things are difficult, painful even, but believe that you will get through them. Focus on what you can do, rather than what is wrong with you.
- Experience your emotions fully and show some self-compassion. Be willing to experience the fear, frustration, sadness, anger and grief and move through it. Be gentle with yourself.
- Believe in something bigger, something better. Of the thousands of people de Bonvoisin interviewed, she says those who handled crisis effectively believed that there was a bigger reason for their challenge, a greater meaning behind their struggle.
Adopting these strategies doesn’t mean you’ll cruise without care through the next crisis or unexpected life shift, but it will be easier.
Johnson-Traver still grieves for her husband and admits that coping with his death has been harder than she ever expected. But she has also experienced greater satisfaction and happiness. She’s proud of how she has handled the crisis and pleased with how much she’s learned. Even managing the simple things, like learning how to turn on the automatic sprinklers, has helped her build confidence in her ability to deal with change. And now she knows that if another crisis strikes, she’ll be able to handle that, too.