Self Care & a myth of Crisis Mode

There’s general agreement about self care, it’s good stuff, we should do it and so on. There’s a lot of talk about meditation and exercise and bubble baths in ways that bewilder the more adventurous of us, nauseate the more masculine, and create yearning for those who actually like these things!

If only it was that simple. For some people it is – figure out what you need and do it. For others, it goes more like figure out what you need, try to do it. Run into walls and blocks and internal obstacles. Fight them like crazy and manage to it only sometimes. Kind of hate yourself a lot and feel ashamed and confused. Get stuck. And hate everyone who tells you to ‘take care’.

Yeah, been there. Lots! Sometimes we have to spend a bit of time unpicking the things that make self care impossible. There’s many, many reasons. One of them is when we are crisis mode, self care feels wrong, even dangerous. Crisis mode is a state of high alertness and changed priorities that we use to manage extremely volatile challenging and threatening situations. It’s important and essential. We all do it and we all need to do it. It’s triggered by a sense of threat. That’s important to understand becuase often that threat is in response to an external situation of violence, homelessness, or some less tangible risk of loss such as widespread retrenchment in your workplace. Other times it’s triggered by an internal threat, or a memory of threat, or by unworkable core beliefs such as “I must be better than everyone at everything or I’m not worth anything” that make threat an inevitable, permanent part of social interactions.

Crisis mode is the thing that shifts our brain from higher functions and long term planning to immediate threat response. It’s primal. It’s the thing that makes us run toward a screaming child, react to a dog attack, drop our toothbrush and put out the fire in the kitchen. It’s flight or flight stuff and it uses our brains in a very different way. It’s triggered by the strong emotional sense of threat and fear. When people suffer some kinds of brain damage or are heavily dosed on tranquillisers or mood dampening drugs, they can be missing this response completely and struggle to react appropriately to threat. There is a sad case study of a man who continued to brush his teeth while his kitchen burned down, because this kind of brain damage was present. He heard the smoke alarms screaming and intended to respond, but without the emotional reaction kicking him into crisis mode, he stayed with his current plans for the evening which involved brushing his teeth and so on, and merely tacked ‘do something about the kitchen fire’ to the end of his mental to do list. Crisis mode dumps our previous to do list and rapidly reorganises with with a focus on threat and survival. It’s brilliant and essential.

However, like any system, things can go wrong or get stuck. Some people don’t have crisis mode activate at all when they need it. Some find it kicks in too often or for the wrong kinds of crises such as interpersonal conflicts or existential threats where a loading of adrenaline and a hyper focus on the threat is exactly the opposite of what would be helpful. There can also be issues with staying in crisis mode too long. There’s complex biology behind this about the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system and long term cortisol levels and adrenal fatigue and so on. But the bit I want to focus on is the clash between crisis mode and self care.

When things are very hard in a longer term way than short urgent crises such as a car accident – whether you’re homeless, suicidal, or facing horrific debts, you can get stuck in crisis mode long term. The self care side of things is actually about getting yourself out of crisis mode. It’s about relaxing, taking intense focus off the threat, calming down brain and body, and getting out of that flight/fight/freeze mode. The aim is to reduce the intense emotions that are triggering the crisis, make space for the ones that need to happen post the crises – so where terror triggers crisis, a wash out of grief, sadness, and fear following a crisis can be an essential part of moving out of crisis mode where such feelings are numbed in order to function. However, in longer term crises we can hang on to our crisis mode because we feel we need it. We can’t rest yet, stop yet, relax yet, feel things yet because it’s still happening! Worse, when we try to, we feel weak and vulnerable and emotional. We may even radically decrease our functioning and go from being able to keep up the ‘front’ and hold up work and study and getting dressed in the morning – to falling in a heap and not being able to get out of bed or stop crying. This is a natural result of making a safe space in our lives, all the feelings we’ve pushed aside turn up. If we’ve pushed very BIG feelings aside, or been pushing them aside for a long time, we will probably feel very big feelings at this point. So we, and the people around us, get scared. We think we’re getting sick, losing control, going crazy, or falling apart. And we can’t afford to fall apart!! The crisis is still happening! So our sense of terror and threat kicks back in and we go back into crisis mode, that urgent, hypervigilent, holding-on-with-white-knuckles approach to life. And we feel incredibly strained, but at least we’re ‘strong’ again. If we can just fix the problem, then we’ll go and self care!

There’s the myth – it’s better, safer, more efficient to stay in crisis mode than to go into and out of it all the time. Self care can wait until the crises are all over.

  • Emotional Flooding – learn more about  ‘feeling’ weak and how suppression of strong feelings and containment of them are different
  • Carpe Diem – exploring the way I look strong in crisis and look  weak when it passes but they’re the same process at different parts of the response to life events

Welcome to major issues. This is a poor strategy for managing crises. It feels right and makes sense intuitively, but it destroys us. Our bodies and brains are not designed to be in crisis mode long term. (Not that brain and body are truly separate, but this still how people think of them) When we put them in this mode for a long time, they change. This is adaptive. Basically our body and brain go – well, I guess this person is unlucky. They are living in a really dangerous time and place. We will adapt and help them to have the kind of brain and body that can survive in a really high risk environment. We will make them hypersensitive to any hint of threat. We will give them a hair trigger to kick into adrenaline. We will change their cortisol levels to crisis mode ones all the time. We will wake them up if the tiniest noise happens. We will help them problem solve the bad things by making them dream about them over and over until they figure out how to manage them. We will keep them obsessively focused on the problem so they can fix it. We will help them be the highly sensitive, alert, focused, reactive person they clearly need to be in order to keep them alive.

Our body changes too. Our muscles stay chronically tense in what is known as ‘guarding’ where they literally try to armour us against physical harm. Chronic muscle tension has implications for blood flow, immune function, and lymphatic drainage. It is linked to chronic pain caused by chronic tension and issues with poor lactic acid drainage following exertion. We feel both wired and exhausted and in pain and numb. Our senses may become heightened as they can when a sense is lost. Like a blind person noticing tiny noises, we are deeply attuned to anything that suggests danger, noticing smells and sounds we’ve never been able to pick up before. This may destroy our usual levels of helpful dissociation, so we can no longer tune things out. People crunching foods now drives us up the wall. We can’t listen to a conversation with the radio in the background. We can’t sleep if the neighbours check their mail.

We have to let go of the idea that long term crisis mode is helpful. This is the ‘being too strong all the time’ that sets us up for chronic health and emotional problems and sometimes a huge breakdown when it suddenly fails. No one can be strong all the time without rewiring their body and brain to believe that their life is under constant threat. Those re-wirings are what we call Posttraumatic Stress Disorder or various other dissociative, psychotic, and anxiety disorders. (psychosis and crisis a topic for a different post) For people in constant danger, they are useful. For people who are under threat but not the kind that can be solved by this approach, or who are actually in intermittent crises but try to stay in crisis mode and be strong all the time just in case, these changes are extremely destructive and distressing. Even noticing that these changes are happening can make some people kick into crisis mode as they fight them and try harder to be ‘strong’. This sets off a spiral that can result in tragedy and severe impairment. Accepting that our brains and bodies are wired to survive and that we are carried along by that process, able to influence and direct it but not solely in control of it – and for very good reasons, is critical. We can’t control it because the whole point of crisis mode is to hijack our brain and body without us having to think about it and straight away convert us into crisis mode so we have the best chance of surviving. It is extremely rapid and we don’t have to try and think it into happening, or we’d all be tiger food.

Nobody wrist poem

So, if survival and functioning isn’t about being strong all the time, what is it about? There are lessons to be learned here from those who work and manage extreme environments such as the Arctic. The best model of survival is not a constant state, but a cycle. When a crisis is right now happening, respond to it. Drop everything and do what must be done! When a crisis is not happening right now, right this very moment, this second, that we can do something urgent about, then use self care and grounding to get yourself out of crisis mode as quickly as possible. It is the turbo boost on your car, you should not use it constantly. It is the cheetah’s top speed, you can only hit it once a day before you wear out or change how you function. If you don’t want the changes (PTSD) then get OUT of crisis mode at every opportunity you can. Notice how quickly you kick back into it and rely on that – if it is needed you will be able to activate again, so quickly you won’t even think about it. But get out of it. I’ve discussed ways to do this and more behind the idea in other posts:

  • Handling Hot Material – a simple approach ‘Pick it up and put it down again’
  • Survival Lessons – how do ‘professional survivors’ of extreme environments do it?
  • 5 Hours After an Assault – my partner Rose and I personally navigating a crisis, with explanations of the basic threat responses fight/flight/freeze/fold/tend-and-befriend
  • Awesome Quote – Self Care – how do other people who have come through a lot of hard stuff still manage to function?

It’s not just okay to be ‘weak’, it’s essential to your survival. It helps you recharge and build strength for those times you urgently do need to respond to life. It also kicks you out of crisis mode in your body and brain, and back into your higher functions. For simple urgent issues like ‘I’ve just fallen in the lion enclosure’, or ‘he won’t get his hand off me’, crisis mode is perfect. (By simply, I do not mean ‘easy’, nor do I mean ‘not awful’. Some of the simplest crises you could ever face are some of the most traumatic and horrific!) You will react to the threat instantly, before you can even think about it. Non essential brain and body functions are powered down. That means memory, logic, digestion, and peripheral circulation, among other things. You become designed entirely to survive – to fight, run, or freeze. To survive blood loss, lift fallen trees, scream for help, run for miles, cope with intense heat or cold or severe injury, numb and dissociate through the unendurable and un-survivable.

When your crisis is complex – as ours often are in a first world country – and longer term – problems like chronic unpredictable relationship violence, gambling addiction, a stressful workplace, or a sick child needing round the clock care – crisis mode is mostly unhelpful. Yes, the adrenaline will help you sit up all night with the sick kid, but it will also give you the jitters, stop you sleeping the rest of the week, trigger heightened alertness to sounds, cause gut problems as you try to eat normal foods with a digestive system that’s basically in ‘standby’ mode, and make it very difficult to think clearly. You need your higher brain functions to manage these issues, and they are offline in crisis mode.

So, whether you’re facing something tough now, or dealing with the fallout of it, you are best served by making crisis mode as brief a part of your response as possible. Get out of it whenever you can – even if that’s only a 10 minute break sitting in the backyard while your Mum cuddles the screaming baby, get your system out of that mode and back into your higher functions so you can think and problem solve and navigate our complex world. Crisis mode will be there again when you need it, and hopefully your time spent out of crisis mode helps you set your life up so you need it as little as possible.

Best wishes all. There’s nothing wrong with you if you’re struggling with these things. Your brain and body are supposed to work like this. It’s called adapting to your environment. You just have to understand that they read all crises the same and try to manage them with a crisis mode that’s sometimes exactly what you need, and sometimes really unhelpful. You can work with your brain and body to get the best out of them, learn to ‘speak their language’ and accept how they work – just had a bad meeting with your boss? Well that anxious I’m going to throw up feeling is crisis mode – your body is full of adrenaline, your digestions has shut down, and your muscles are ready to run or hit someone but of course you’re not allowed to do that so you’re clamping down on your crisis mode like you’re holding someone down who’s struggling with everything they’ve got. Now you’re staring at your lunch feeling wound up and spaced out and thinking about having a panic attack or punching a wall or eating all the chocolate in the vending machine because all of those options would actually help your brain and body resolve the crisis mode and settle. Or you can take a brisk walk around the block to work off the adrenaline and vent on the phone to your best friend while you do it, and that will also get you out of crisis mode, back to higher functions, able to eat your lunch, sit still, focus on something other than your boss, and use the more complicated parts of your brain to figure out what you want to do about the situation. It’s not rocket science, but knowledge is power. You have a body and brain that want you to survive. Work with them! 🙂

Follow up post:

9 thoughts on “Self Care & a myth of Crisis Mode

  1. I wrote a post about it and said that I had read something helpful, but didn’t name your blog because I didn’t know how you would feel about it. Would you like for me to update with a link, if I can figure out how to do that on the phone or iPad app? I could also just name your blog.

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  2. Sarah that was so helpful. It took me through last year in work that always had me on crisis. The person now is gone – but like you said I am still in crisis mode that triggers me for the slightest thing. Even trying to read this I was losing my thoughts. I know I’ll have to keep going with this before I can really get what is happening. But I must do this. I’m going to just start with something small, you might have even said this. But my panic kicks in so well so this is where I’ll start. Re-reading is going to be the start as I couldn’t take it all in. However I’ll just keep going ! Many thanks .

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    • Brilliant Gloria, so glad to hear there were some useful ideas. The issues with making sense of it are probably mine, I haven’t edited and laid off the ideas as carefully as I would like simply due to lack of time… In my mind I see this as an illustrated adult picture book which I think would break the ideas up and make them easier to follow… But I’m glad to hear you’re mining it for useful info!

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