Your heart is thumping and your head is pounding. It’s tough to catch your breath, let alone take some deep breaths. Your to-do list feels ten miles long and you’re not sure where to start. There are some weeks (or months) in our lives when it feels like everything that could possibly go wrong does go wrong. Our already full plates begin to overflow with commitments and urgent matters we need to attend to. Our lives are finely curated juggling acts where we just manage to get everything accomplished by the skin of our teeth. And then a wrench is thrown into the circus and you need to juggle it – right along with those 50 other flaming balls you’re already trying to keep in in the air.
Last week in Fort McMurray, Alberta the flames were literal, not figurative. The town was ravaged by out of control forest fires. And yet, people coped. Support poured in. The situation was handled. If a beast of that scale can be tamed, we can learn to tame our beasts too.
For some people the beast, or the wrench that gets thrown in, is illness or a dreaded diagnosis. It might be a blow up at work, an affair, or a challenge with our kids. Life is unpredictable and even the best laid plans don’t safeguard us from surprises. When stress threatens to crumble us, the phrase that people often squeak out between their tears is
I can’t do this anymore.
It’s an anguished statement, barely above a whisper. There is no more energy. The tank is empty. There’s nothing left. It might feel like pushing a boulder up a hill, threatening to be crushed to death if you even pause. Or perhaps like pulling a little red wagon full of heavy, stinky trash. The stench is overwhelming and the muscle strain of pulling dead weight burns.
You’re right: you can’t do this anymore, it’s not working.
But that doesn’t mean quitting, let’s find a new way.
This is where we can implement some lessons from the hundreds of people who battled the forest fire.
Step One: It’s worth the time to pause
I know, it sounds crazy right? Completely counterintuitive. ‘You want me to pause when I’m already stretched and strapped for time?’ Often when we’re completely frazzled and spinning our wheels it doesn’t dawn on us to just take a few minutes to step back and assess the situation. But it’s worth it. If fire crews had each done their own thing, running headlong into the blaze, there would no doubt have been lives lost. The powers that be had to take some time – even while fires were raging out of control – to assess the situation and consider the most strategic plan of action. They looked at the big picture. It was not a knee jerk reaction or an emotional response. Step back. Take a look. Consider what you have been doing and what needs to be done.
Step Two – Be flexible and reassess
When the winds picked up or changed direction, firefighters had to reassess and restrategize. What works well for us in one situation – or at one point in time – is not guaranteed to be the only solution until the end of time. Sometimes we implement Plan A – a well thought out, considerate way and it falls flat. Or it works for a bit and then stops working. Rather than dissolving in a puddle of tears, take a breath and go back to the drawing board. The plan may not need to be overhauled, it can be tweaked or modified, but this requires flexibility and considering Plan B (or C or D…).
Step Three – Bye bye emotion, hello business
In addition to working in the busy emergency department of a hospital, I've also worked with many frontline responders. The way we approach crisis is with a level head as a problem or challenge to be solved. It's all very matter of fact. There’s no time to roll around in feelings, self-reflection, and navel gazing. There's a job to do and it gets handled it in a very measured, pragmatic way. Therapy has traditionally been all about getting in touch with your feelings and reflecting on your behaviour – there’s a time and a place for that. But not when you’re overwhelmed or in crisis. It won’t dig you out of the pit and it won’t help you make solid decisions. As best you can, put aside the feelings, put aside the urge to take things personally, and treat the issue purely as a problem to be solved.
Every problem has a solution, let’s find a new way.