Managing yourself through a crisis

A practical guide to the psychology of self-preservation

“We cannot direct the wind but we can adjust the sails”
Alone in an office

A crisis situation will throw up many problems, challenges and dilemmas, but be reassured that the most effective counter measures for stressful situations are known and are (for the most part) not so difficult to apply. The place to start when faced with a crisis is with your own reaction to it. Once you feel (more or less) centred, then you are in a position to start to help others. This is just like the safety briefing on an aeroplane – where they ask you to put on your own oxygen mask before attempting to help other people!

These psychological ‘self-defence’ measures primarily consist of…

  • Understanding stress reactions
  • The importance of maintaining an ‘Internal Locus of Control’
  • Three types of hygiene
  • Energy Management Techniques
  • Maintaining Relationships
  • Creative Problem Solving

Let’s look briefly at each of these factors in turn…

Understanding stress reactions

As most people know, the instinctive response to a ‘threat’ is the Fight/Flight Response. The fight/flight survival mechanism comes down to us from our pre-history e.g. approached by a tiger our ancestors would not survive long if they sat down and debated what action to take, so the brain triggers an instantaneous reaction to either (a) attack the tiger or (b) run away.

This ‘fight/flight’ process involves a series of physical changes being generated to help react to the threat e.g. a heightened awareness, a reduction in sensitivity to pain, a quickening heart rate, a rise in blood pressure etc.  The precise physiology of this response is complex but involves hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenalin and cortisol being released to facilitate immediate physical action.

This response is useful where physical threats/challenges occur e.g. being alert to pick pockets on a city street, hiking along a steep mountain track or when we want to cross a busy road.

Problems can arise when the physical threat is replaced by the ‘psychological threat’ such as: worry about tight deadlines; money troubles; illness; sudden changes in work routines etc. Of course, there may be multiple threats e.g. uncertainty about employment security, changes in work pattern (such as enforced working from home), concern about how to care for elderly relatives or other family members etc. If you’re a manager, then there may also be the requirement to provide assurance and direction to employees.

If the fight/flight mechanism is triggered for these ‘psychological threats’ the adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol causes the body to go into overdrive, but the hormones are not naturally dissipated by action, so the blood pressure stays raised or the mind remains agitated.  When this happens fighting or running often translates into unhelpful actions like:

(a) shouting at others
(b) ignoring people or minimising problems
(c) poor quality decisions and,
(d) a sense of ‘panic’.

This then leads to more stress and even worse outcomes. All of this is a normal, human reaction to an awful situation but it is very unhelpful. Once this natural but ‘unhelpful’ process is understood it then becomes possible to change it to something more productive.

Locus of Control

Dr Salvatore R. Maddi of the University of Chicago (based on research he carried out at Bell Telephone during a major downsizing exercise in the 1980′s) identified three characteristics associated with thriving in a difficult environment. They are:

  1. Commitment: striving to be involved in events rather than feeling isolated
  2. Control: trying to control outcomes, as well as one can, rather than lapsing into passivity
  3. Challenge: viewing stressful changes as opportunities for learning

In all three of these areas the idea of Locus of Control can be helpful.

Locus of Control is a theory in psychology that considers the extent to which individuals believe that they can control events that affect them.  Based on the work of Julian Rotter (social learning theory of personality 1954) it suggests that people have either an:

  • External Locus of Control: life is controlled by external factors I can’t influence
  • Internal Locus of Control; events are shaped, at least to some extent, by my actions

For example, if a person with an Internal Locus of Control does not perform as well as they wanted to on a test, they would blame it on lack of revision on their part. If they performed well on a test, they would attribute this to the way they studied for it.  If a person with a high External Locus of control does badly on a test, they might blame the teacher for not preparing them correctly, or that they had a cold. If they do well on a test, they might think that they were just lucky with the questions that came up.

What this tells us is that one of the most effective approaches to handing a stressful situation is to prioritise an Internal Locus of Control. This means accepting that there are things that we can’t affect e.g. government policy, the general economic environment etc. and just consciously choose to ‘let go’ of those things. Then, again as an act of conscious will, we choose to focus on what we can do and what we can affect e.g. our own underlying health, the way we control our personal finances etc., and think creatively and expansively about what our options are and then proactively take what actions we can do and what we can affect.

Three Types of Hygiene

Hygiene is defined as: Conditions or practices conducive to maintaining health and preventing disease (from the ancient Greek hugieiné – the art of health). In respect of stress management and building resilience e.g. during the COVID-19 pandemic, we can say that three types of hygiene are particularly important…

  1. Personal Hygiene. The scientific advice is that frequently washing your hands helps to avoid catching many diseases.  Soap breaks many viruses (including COVID19) into small pieces which can then easily be swilled down the drain. The main issue is to make sure that all of the hands are covered with soap when you wash them – the fingers, thumbs, back of the hand etc.
  2. Sleep Hygiene. Fatigue is the enemy of good decision making and creates a low mood, which makes a sense of hopelessness more likely. Be disciplined about getting 8 hours sleep a night.
  3. News Hygiene. It is easy to obsess about the latest developments and become bombarded by all the ‘breaking news’, opinions and counter opinions. This takes up a lot of time, can cause confusion and generally does very little good. News Hygiene involves picking one or two trusted, high quality sources of information and sticking with them.

Energy Management Techniques

Energy Management involves making sure that a person is sensitive to what is happening to them (and their stress levels) and takes enough breaks, or slows down from time to time, in order to conserve their energy levels.

There is an analogy with athletics training, where the athlete ‘warms up’, has a vigorous ‘work out’, ‘warms down’ and then rests.

The ‘warming up’ and ‘warming down’ as well as the rest period (or what is often called “Quality Recovery Time”) are all crucial parts of the training process and key both to achieving high performance and avoiding injury.   Too many training sessions, without allowing the body to fully heal, or entering competitions too close together, simply results in a loss of form and poor results.

So, especially in times of high stress, it is important to take time to re-set the mind and body by taking regular ‘mini breaks’ such as walking the dog, meditating, just sitting quietly over a coffee and letting your mind drift, chatting to a friend, playing with your kids, etc.

A key idea here is the need to Prioritise Positivity; this simply involves organising everyday life to actively include some activities that bring pleasure. These pleasing activities will be different from person to person but could include things like; watching sport, gardening, reading a newspaper, playing the piano, going for a run etc. People who Prioritise Positivity are not just happier than those who don’t, but also have better relationships, more resilience and are more mindful. This happens because they have more frequent experiences of positive emotions, because they consistently schedule, ‘fun things’ into their routine.  (Journal of Emotion – Catalino et al, 2014.)

Maintaining Relationships

Resilient people appreciate that, ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ and understand the value of a ‘support network’ to give advice, guidance and succour in troubled times.

Human beings are ‘pack’ animals. In evolutionary terms success in an oftentimes-hostile environment came from co-operation, teamwork and being part of a family, tribe or nation.  So, there is a powerful, innate need for mutually supportive relationships.

Consequently, when faced with high pressure situations or a crisis, the advice, guidance and perspective that family and friends provide are vital to keeping a sense of perspective and ‘switching off’ the fight or flight response.  Naturally, you will also be giving support to them in return. Think about how and when to stay in touch with the people that matter most to you (maybe) develop an informal schedule for when to call people. Also, reflect on what technology you want to use given the need for remote working e.g. FaceTime, Zoom, Skype etc.

Creative Problem Solving

As the Americans say, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going!”

A key element of coping in a crisis is having the vision, the imagination, and the determination to find novel ways of doing things in the face of adversity.

One aspect of this is to choose to engage people in creative problem-solving activities. Pick a topic and think about how to address it as a team. Be careful to separate generating ideas from evaluating them.  Remember that all ideas are good ideas when you are generating options; the ‘trick’ is to come up with as many alternative solutions as possible. Sometimes the most ridiculous ideas are the ones that lead to a spark of insight that end up pointing the way to a really elegant answer to the problem. It may be worth trying out some creative thinking tools like Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats or Osborn’s Checklist, or Reframing.

What’s next?

Reflect on how well you deal personally with a crisis. Are you maintaining a calm, centred frame of mind? Are you adopting an Internal Locus of Control? What improvements could you make to how you are handling the situation?


Read my article on Creativity or this one on Reframing, Mind mapping,  Insight and Creative Flow.


Watch… this clip of a simple 3-step technique from Dale Carnegie on how to stop worrying and start living.


Consider signing teams up for our remote group coaching sessions on developing resilience.


If you’re a senior executive maybe a ‘one-to-one’ executive coaching session, or our remote coaching programme, would be a useful option for helping you improve your self-management skills?

And finally, however troublesome things seem, remember this ancient Persian adage about the temporary nature of the human condition…

“This too shall pass.”