How can you cope with a life crisis and move on?

By Janne Ekeberg Amundsen, psychologist  

For most of us, life consists of more than just good times, and sooner or later we can expect to be struck by a crisis. What can you do when you lose your footing – when you lose perspective and your life spins out of control?

A life crisis can take many forms, from the breakup of a relationship, to one of your loved ones being afflicted by a serious illness or death, to losing a job, being betrayed, or major life changes, such as the transition to retirement.

A life crisis may also be more traumatic, such as mental and physical abuse or a serious accident. Nevertheless, whatever our brain perceives as a threat to our personal security, and situations where we feel are out of our control, may be interpreted as a potential trauma.

The way we experience a life crisis is extremely individual, and will depend on how vulnerable you are in the situation and what kinds of stress you have experienced previously in you life.

Different phases

The Swedish psychiatrist Johan Cullberg (2003) has suggested that crises be understood as consisting of four phases with special characteristics.

Most people who have been through a crisis will recognize some of their own reactions in Cullberg’s model, but it is also important to remember that everyone has their own unique history and way of coping with a crisis.

  1. Shock phase
    The first reaction is called the shock phase, and typically lasts for a few hours or days. This phase is characterized by inner chaos, anger, panic or apathy. Many people describe it as if they are standing next to themselves and feel that the situation is unreal.

  2. Reaction phase
    Many struggle with anxiety, despair, anger and anxiety during the reaction phase. This is when mental defense mechanisms kick in and you can both deny that the incident happened and avoid dealing with it. Feelings of guilt and self-blame are not uncommon during this phase, and many find themselves mulling over how the incident could have been avoided. This phase can last from 1-6 weeks.

  3. Healing and processing phase
    Finally, the person gradually accepts what has happened. This is the healing and processing phase. The individual’s defense mechanisms gradually diminish, and he or she spends much less time and energy thinking about what happened.

  4. Reorientation phase
    The reorientation phase begins after 6 months. This is when the person can begin to look outwards at the world again, and although the event will always be perceived as painful, it will not be the major preoccupation like it once way. Many people find in the aftermath that they have emerged stronger from the event.

Even though it’s useful to think of crises as consisting of different phases, that doesn’t mean everyone reacts the same way, or goes through the different phases in the same sequence or at the same pace.

Some people spend much more time in the same reaction pattern and realize that they are not able to move on. It is not unusual to relapse, especially around anniversaries, or when reactions are triggered by places and situations reminiscent of the incident.

Things may happen later in life that serve as painful reminders and open old wounds. Experience tells us that these problems can come back to haunt us, especially if the person has put a lid on his or her feelings and has avoided thinking about the event.

Here’s how you can move on and reconcile yourself to what has happened

Most people who find themselves in a crisis are largely helped by getting support from others, and by accepting their thoughts and feelings about what has happened.

1) Dare to accept your pain

The most common trap is to choose to avoid the situation. Constantly shutting out the feelings you have over the long term could simply serve to reinforce the pain. It is therefore not good advice to just “pull yourself together.

  • Dare to accept your pain.
  • Put what you’re feelings into words.
  • It is important that whoever listens to the story acknowledges the other person’s experience.

2) Talk to a neutral third party

Many find it useful to talk to a neutral third party. It is not uncommon for people to seek help because they are worried that they will wear out their loved ones or feel that they are unable to escape a fixed mindset.

3) Confront your own style of thinking

Cognitive therapy tells us that what a person thinks about him or herself affects how that person perceives the situation. Many who find themselves in a crisis blame themselves, or develop a stream of negative thoughts about their ability to cope.

  • A first step is to record the thoughts, feelings and bodily reactions that you have during the situation.
  • It is often the case that you first become aware of feelings or bodily discomfort. We are often much less aware of the negative thoughts we have, but it is nevertheless important to do something about these thoughts to bring about a change.

The next step is to challenge your negative self-assumptions with counter arguments.Some central questions to ask:

  • Do your negative thoughts reflect the actual situation?
  • What facts contradict these negative perceptions of yourself?

It is not uncommon to feel angry after having experienced different kinds of violations or loss. 

Your experience challenges your belief that the world is a safe place, or that others wish you well. Some people react with an anger that they take out on the people around them.

People end up being vigilant in a way that other people’s intentions are constantly interpreted in a negative way. You overreact, over-interpret and shoot from the hip. This in turn creates an even greater miasma of frustration around you.

One important part of the reconciliation process can be to acknowledge the anger that you feel. In the case of a violation, it is important to place the responsibility on the person who actually created the problem instead of blaming yourself or letting bad feelings spill over onto your loved ones.

4) Write your story anew

Try to internalize the fact that the bad thing that has happened, has happened. But it’s over now. When you have come far enough along in the healing process, you can begin to rewrite your own story.

Instead of seeing yourself as a loser and a victim, you can shift your perspective on things and see them in new ways. This does not mean you should trivialize what happened, but that you should give yourself a new and better role in your own story.

5) Record positive happenings

Recording positive happenings and your experience of coping with things helps you keep your spirits up and to see that you are headed in the right direction.

  • Shift your focus from the painful to what you have here and now.
  • You do the best you can – find your way to positive things and what you can do and enjoy.

As you begin to keep track of positive events, it is common for negative thoughts and feelings to be weakened – just by virtue of keeping these records.

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