How to cope with crisis

It only takes a moment for your world to come crashing down. In the silence that follows the bang, it's you and the pieces of your life. But there's hope and help. After all, life has to move on

Terrorism blows up lives with a bang. It shoots down dreams, shatters aspirations.

You are standing on a railway platform, waiting for your father to get a cup of tea from a nearby tea-stall. You hear gunfire and turn to see your father go down in a spray of bullets. You are frozen on the spot.

You drop your best friend near a hotel and go off to park the car. Walking back, you see your friend being carried out, drenched in blood. She doesn’t make it to the hospital.

You wave good-bye to your husband as he goes off to work. When cooking his favourite meal you are interrupted by the phone. The caller informs you that your husband has died in the crossfire between terrorists and security personnel.

You are watching a news channel, when you are shocked to see your office being blown up in a terrorist attack.

In the newspapers, the news channels, on radio, in face the same trauma again, and again.

The incidents stay with us no matter where we are when it happened. How do we tackle such crises, whether manmade or natural? How do the ones who have lived the horror, cope?

How our mind reacts

This is how those who experience such crises typically react:

The first reaction is invariably that of shock, disbelief and denial – ‘This isn’t happening to me’!

The second stage is one of anger and rage towards the situation – ‘How could this be happening to me?’

The third stage is one when reality has sunk in and the grieving starts. That’s when we feel depressed, anxious and scared – ‘My life has come to an end’, ‘I can’t go on’.

All the above emotions impair us. We feel paralysed and are unable to make a choice. Anger, depression, anxiety and guilt.emotions are in overdrive, while the mind goes numb. It becomes impossible to behave in a rational, goal-directed manner where we can seek solutions.

Sadness and nervousness set in at the fourth stage – ‘I miss what I had!’, ‘Will I ever move beyond this?’

This is the when coping truly starts. It is here that intervention in the form of an empathic counsellor can truly help to cope, by encouraging and help establishing more functional and pro-life behaviour.

Who can help

Immediately after a crisis, we witness emotions that are so overwhelming that no action is possible at that time. You have to wait for these debilitating emotions to pass, by keeping the affected person, physically comfortable with adequate rest and nourishment, relaxation in the form of stress-relieving techniques and sometimes, even tranquilisers. At this point, empathic, non-judgmental and active listening to the narrative of the affected plays an important role in taking him/her to the next stage. You may consider seeking professional help.

Seeing a therapist

It is of extreme importance that the person feels fully understood by the therapist. It is only after this stage that the therapist  can gently motivate her, to move from hopelessness—where she is in her psychological world, to hopefulness—where she needs to be.

Those who have coped and emerged ‘survivors’ after a crisis, are the ‘chosen ones’ to psychologically rehabilitate the ‘victims’. Thus, you will note that often the best counsellors at say, rape crisis centres, cancer patients’ support groups, etc, are those who have survived a similar ordeal. They are the insiders, the fellow-sufferers.

Very often, there is a wave of anger and indignation at those perceived as outsiders, thus closing the mental doors to help. But instead, if the insider is able to say, “I have gone through something similar, I think I understand exactly how you feel,” just imagine the feeling of solidarity it will create. It changes the focus from “I,” the victim to “Us,” the fellow-sufferers. In this way, the survivor-counsellor acts as a catalyst, an effective model to be inspired by. Because such a person has herself moved from being a victim to being a survivor.

Together all heal

St Paul writes: “God helps us in all our troubles, so that we are able to help those who have all kinds of troubles, using the same help that we ourselves have received from God.”

It will help to join a support group. Group members meet and share with each other their experiences on a regular basis. Such self-help groups function on the basis of ‘Helper therapy’ [here, helping others is associated with one’s own healing], and ‘Modelling’ [here, more functionally successful group members provide examples of valued behaviour and instil hope].

A ‘hand up’ v/s a ‘handout’

It is also important to make sure that the affected person does not harbour a dependency for physical, financial or even emotional ‘handouts’; but instead mobilises her own inner resources to cope with the crisis. I read the other day, that many victims of the Latur quake in Maharashtra, are so dependant on the ‘handouts’ even today, several years after the disaster struck, that they feel that society is obliged to take on their responsibility.

Those who start deriving comfort in an irresponsible life, those who use the crisis to justify their ‘avoidance of responsibility’, need to be shaken out of their slumber by withdrawing the excess ‘tender loving care’. Thus, a ‘hand up’ is what is needed during and after the crisis, and not a ‘handout’ to those who need to cope with any crisis.

A simple example illustrates this point. A hungry man comes to you for help. You give him a fish. He eats it and feels satisfied for some time. But the following day he returns to you for help. This continues. Are you really helping this man? You are creating in him a dependency on you. It is inhibiting his personal growth. Instead, give him a fishing rod and teach him how to fish. Then, he will not depend on you. He will use his personal resources and become self-reliant. You will have helped actualise his human potential. You will help him to help himself. This is the most loving act that you can do for anyone, and this is how you need to help anyone including yourself cope with any crisis.

Counsellor’s couch

Crisis therapy: The use of Existential Psychotherapy can be very effective dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD] after any crisis.

Existentialists say that man is aware of himself, as well as events that influence him, whether from the past, the present or the future. This very fact makes choices and decisions possible for us. Our capacity to make choices also makes us responsible for them.

The only way to surmount the feelings of loneliness or sorrow caused by the loss of near and dear ones or the depression due to material losses, is to help the affected clarify their values and to work out meaningful ways of being in the world.

According to Dr Albert Ellis’ ABC theory of REBT, it is not the Activating event [A] that causes a reaction in a person [while it surely contributes to it], but it is the person’s belief [B] about the event that is responsible for the ultimate consequence [C] in the form of emotional distress and the behaviour stemming from such emotions. A counsellor thus, helps a person undergoing a crisis gradually shape more pro-life beliefs, and slowly move towards a functional life.

Also, our nervous system seems to react to images in our mind. These images can be produced by actual situations and even by imagined situations, and produce corresponding feelings.

Thus, a counsellor helps the affected person to change his mental imagery by filling the mind with more wholesome, realistic, functional, adaptive and desirable images through a philosophic re-orientation. Helping the affected person see that there is life beyond this crisis, to focus on what remains and what can be built on, is part of the healing process, which helps to cope with any crisis.

Minnu Bhonsle
Dr Minnu R Bhonsle, PhD, is a Mumbai-based consulting psychotherapist and counsellor. She conducts training programmes in Personal Counselling [Client-centred Therapy] and Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, and also workshops in Stress Management, Art of Listening, Couple Therapy, and Communication Skills. Minnu has co-authored the book, The Ultimate Sex Education Guide along with Dr Rajan Bhonsle.


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