Life can be unpredictable. Despite the best-laid plans and precautions, external events (often completely beyond our control,) can hurl your life into chaos. Family tragedies, job losses, unexpected upheavals, and natural disasters can completely upend the balance, stability, and normalcy of your daily routine.
To make matters worse, traumatic events can generate an enormous amount of stress, anxiety, fear, and worry. It can be challenging enough to make it through the day when external conditions are stable, but coping with a large-scale crisis can feel nearly impossible.
What can you do when such situations topple our equilibrium? When the carpet is figuratively pulled out from under you? When everything that was familiar and reliable is in disarray, where do you turn? And how can you skillfully navigate the churning sea?
Although it’s not necessarily easy, there are steps you can follow to ride out the turbulence, do what has to be done, and take care of yourself and others in the process. When tough times strike, use the following steps as guidelines to help maintain your connection to your true self amid the confusion and chaos.
1. Prioritize: Do what has to be done
This step essentially amounts to “spiritual triage.” You need to try to remain calm, clearly identify and plan what needs to be done, and put your attention on those items or issues that are in most urgent need of resolution. The military and law enforcement agencies refer to this prioritization as the OODA loop, which stands for:
- Observe the situation—gather information on what’s happening
- Orient yourself to what’s happening—what choices are available to you?
- Decide on a course of action—make the most appropriate choice
- Take Action—do what has to be done
Focus on the biggest problems first. Don’t be concerned about the little things at this stage. Plug the largest holes in your boat now; once they’ve been sealed then you can return to deal with the secondary issues. When the big troubles have been contained you’ll have the time to regroup and plan what comes next.
2. Breathe: Be present and aware of what’s happening
During a traumatic experience, the shock of the situation can trigger an extreme activation of the fight-or-flight response causing you to freeze in fear. Oftentimes you’re caught so unaware that you are literally unable to process what’s happening. If this happens, the most important reminder is simply to breathe.
The fight-or-flight reaction shortens your breathing into quick, shallow gasps, starving the brain’s frontal cortex of oxygen and depriving you of clear thinking and decision-making abilities. If you can remember to breathe deeply and slowly, you’ll effectively counteract the fight-or-flight response enough to choose what to do next. Practicing simple Pranayama techniques such as the Ujjayi breath can mitigate the stress response and ground your awareness in the present moment, from where you can best determine your next course of action.
3. Practice meditation: Stillness among activity
Meditation is one of the best tools to cultivate a calm and present moment’s awareness during traumatic and challenging times. As often as conditions allow during the chaos, find time to settle your mind in meditation. Due to the large amount of stress such events can cause, longer or more frequent meditation can help weaken the anxiety of the situation.
It’s helpful to remember that there are typically two types of meditators—crisis meditators and regular meditators. Crisis meditators meditate when life gets rough in order to deal with a particular challenge. Regular meditators engage in a consistent meditation practice, usually on a daily basis. Crisis meditation will help relieve the stress of the difficulty being faced. However, if you practice meditation regularly, over time your nervous system becomes less tuned to the fight-or-flight response, rendering the crisis situation less powerful. In addition, regular mediation practice can shift your localized energy field, helping to bring a calm, balanced awareness to others caught up in the situation.
4. Be easy on yourself: Get adequate rest-and-recovery time
Once the initial trauma has passed, don’t automatically assume that life will return to normal overnight. Traumatic events can have a lasting effect and it may take several days, weeks, months, or longer to recover from them. Everyone is susceptible to posttraumatic stress and the debilitating effects of adrenal fatigue on your system.
Make getting adequate recovery time and extra rest the highest priority once the traumatic situation is over. Get plenty of sleep, eat nourishing meals, meditate, confide with a friend, or write in a journal to help process your experience. If necessary, consult with a professional to make sure that your mind, body, and emotions are recovering from what you have been through. Expecting life to return to normal instantly isn’t realistic and you’ll need to accept and integrate your experience before settling into the “new normal.”
5. Remember the real You who never changes
During the chaos and turbulence, it is helpful to remember your true identity. When you’re caught up in the heights of worry and anxiety, it can be easy to lose yourself in the emotions and drama of a traumatic event. The fight-or-flight reaction of your nervous system is a survival mechanism and you are right to fear for your physical, mental, and emotional safety. But in doing so, you often forget your true nature as being one with spirit. Despite the chaos and turbulence, you are infinite, immortal, and eternal. As Krishna teaches Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita:
Realize that which pervades the universe and is indestructible; no power can affect this unchanging imperishable reality. The body is mortal, but he who dwells in the body is immortal and immeasurable. C2; 17-18
The self cannot be pieced by weapons or burned by fire; water cannot wet it, nor can the wind dry it. C2; 23
No matter how troubling, frightening, or tragic the circumstance you may be going through, ultimately, it is ultimately only the scenery, not the seer. The scenery changes, the seer always is, was, and will be. Reminding yourself of this fact will do much to help keep you grounded in your true nature. From this state of being you can act with the calm certainty and self-confidence to see things as they are and make the most appropriate choices.
6. Detach and embrace uncertainty
Traumatic events can tear at the very fabric of your life. Chaos reigns and it feels as if stability will never return. In such times you may be unable to fight the reality of what is, and trying to do so often wastes valuable energy. Now is a profound opportunity to practice detachment from how you think things should be.
Know that remaining rigidly attached to what was will block the road to recovery, restoration, and rebuilding following an upheaval. Rather than resisting the turmoil when things are out of control, let go, step into the uncertainty, and be open to opportunities disguised in the loss. This is the archetypal realm of Lord Shiva. Often known as the Hindu God of destruction, Shiva is a great purifier, opening paths for new creation by clearing away the old. Shiva represents letting go of everything in the world of form, embracing detachment, and stepping forward into the new possibilities that arise out of the chaos.
7. Trust that it will pass
In the middle of turmoil, panic, and fight or flight you identify powerfully with the situation you’re caught up in. The stress response can often cause a distortion in your perception of time and you may feel as if you are caught in a never-ending bad dream. While this can be incredibly frustrating, try to remember how other challenging situations in your past may have felt endless when they were taking place, but with hindsight you can see that you made it through—you survived. Things got better and the situation passed. All that has a beginning must ultimately have an end. Change is the only constant in the universe. The trauma can’t go on forever. It will eventually pass away, and you can take comfort knowing that in an impermanent universe, nothing lasts forever, even your greatest troubles.
Impermanent are all component things,
They arise and cease, that is their nature:
They come into being and pass away,
Release from them is bliss supreme.
Use as many of these tips as you need as you are processing the traumatic event and moving through it. Your journey may be short or it may be long, but by applying these tools, you’ll help clear your path and make the trip an easier one.