How to Overcome Crisis and Chaos

Crisis! It appears out of nowhere and tosses us into a dark valley of confusion, stress, and chaos. Whether it’s receiving shocking news from back home, experiencing a terrorist attack in a nearby city, or owing a huge sum in unexpected taxes, we experience similar reactions. 



Your sympathetic nervous system kicks in with its fight, flight, or freeze response. Typically, this moves people to act. Our arms and legs get better supplied with oxygen-rich blood, as a result of the heightened adrenaline and cortisol that’s released during stress. Everything in us wants to DO something and do it NOW. 

  • Some people want to “get out” in any way they can.

  • Others become angry and want to fight back.

  • For some people, however, they “freeze” and feel paralyzed.

In all these situations, our brains react in a heightened stress mode, flooded with chemicals that diminish our ability to think well. While helpful when we need to run from a burning building, it’s not what we need to navigate a computer meltdown or life-changing betrayal. 


One synonym for crisis is "a mess." We sense a lack of clarity about what’s next. It’s common for us to feel like everyone else, or at least someone else, understands this situation. They just aren’t telling us. The truth is, in the midst of crisis, often, no one knows all the information. It just takes time to sort things out.


Even when it’s a community crisis, people often feel very alone. We tend to go into a self-protective or survival mode when we feel needy. As a result, we often don’t consider how our actions or words are impacting others, nor do we have the energy to care for others. It takes special effort to get past our own needs.


As our stress increases, we may act out-of-sorts, not thinking, behaving, or interacting with others well. Our body and brain are spending so much energy maintaining a high alert stress response that we forget things, repeat ourselves, and lack the logic and common sense we used to have.  


In a crisis, we can enter into a state of shock as we feel something is happening to us that we are unable to change. It’s true that in many cases, we do start out as powerless. As times goes on, however, we do have choices. Taking even small steps deactivates “powerless” thinking patterns, which stem from temperament and the stress response chemicals released during a crisis.  

If you are experiencing one or more of these, read on for help and hope!


These steps form the acronym BARC. This reminds us of the outer layer of a tree, the protective bark. Follow these steps to help bring fortitude and endurance in the midst of the stress of crisis.


By living overseas, you already live at a higher stress level. You’re likely to have less reserve energy to devote to a crisis. If you haven’t been practicing relaxation techniques yet, now is the time to start! How? Breathe!

Doing this activates our parasympathetic nervous system, which is the only thing that puts the brakes on our sympathetic nervous system (our fight or flight response).

Here's one way:

Set a timer for five minutes. Lie down or sit comfortably, then think only about what you notice in your body while you breathe. Notice how your chest or belly moves as you breathe. Notice the sensations in your nose or mouth. If your mind wanders, don’t fret, just come back to awareness about breathing. If it helps, repeat in your mind a favorite inspirational or comforting quote or verse.  

Other techniques that halt our stress response include: stretching, yawning, coloring, drawing, listening to instrumental music. Helpful relaxation Apps are "Calm" and "Centering Prayer."  You can also read more on the antidote to stress by clicking here.

Once you have calmed your stressed-out sympathetic nervous system, you can respond more clearly to the crisis.


First, ascertain or identify your risk tolerance*. Maybe you have a high tolerance and rush forward into risk, maybe without thinking. Maybe you have a low tolerance and avoid risk at any cost. Or, like many, you are somewhere in-between. You are uniquely wired and have individual life experiences that shape this response to risk. 

Don’t push yourself to respond like someone else, yet respect how others respond. Having a higher tolerance is not the same as having more courage. Listen to others’ opinions responding to the crisis, but be aware of their risk tolerance. Their perspective might bring some wise balance to your own.

Second, ascertain or identify your fears. We all have fears, though we aren’t always aware of them. In the chaos of crisis, our fears isolate us from others and paralyze us.

Fear, especially when mixed with confusion, can lead to resignation. We begin believing that what we fear will be the only outcome! This immobilizes us and keeps us from preparing for other more hopeful possibilities.

Whether or not you are aware of your fears, they are already creating stress below your awareness level. In other words, you don’t have to be consciously aware of your fears for them to affect you. Discuss them with someone you trust, or write about them. Bringing them into the light helps dissolve the power of fear. It also reduces their drain on your emotional and mental resources, giving you more energy to devote to steps forward and caring for others.


Reducing uncertainty strips chaos of its power. Follow the simple steps below*. These actions will help identify the longer path through the crisis. This will empower you, giving you a sense of relief, confidence, and hope.  

Write down (individually, as a couple, or as a team) as many possible/probable outcomes/consequences of the crisis as you can. Don’t overlook potential positive outcomes. 

  • Next, identify how severe the impact of each outcome would be on you. Give it a number. Low severity equals a "1," and high severity equals a "5."

  • Then ask, "What is the likelihood (or probability) of this happening?" Yes, this will involve some guesswork, but it helps you identify what information you still want to have. As you talk with others, you can update your probability rating. Give this a number of 1 to 5.

  • Now that you have a numerical representation of the crisis, you can decide where to invest your time and energy. You may want to start with addressing the consequence with both the highest severity and probability combination.

Whichever outcome you choose, write out ways to prevent it from happening, limiting the impact of it happening, or overcome it happening. Be creative. Ask others for ideas. 


Yes, we need one another to get the necessary information to move forward, but just as important - or maybe even more – we need to connect on a personal level. We need to push ourselves past our self-protection, isolation, and inward focus. Caring for others and letting them care for us brings health and hope. We recommend three simple steps*.   

  • Ask: Ask one another, "How are you being affected by this?"

  • Invite Awareness: Ask things like, "What is it like for you?" "What’s the hardest part?" "What is this changing for you?" "How are you coping with this?" These questions lead to inner discovery and understanding which better equips you to deal with external pressures.

  • Encourage Action: In crisis and risk situations, people often feel resignation and a sense of powerlessness. It can be so helpful to ask others (and yourself) things like, "What steps could you take to move forward?” “What would help you moving forward?” “What's next for you?"

  • These four "BARC" steps will help you proactively respond to the chaos of crisis. Walking through these with a friend, partner, team, or coach adds value, because it helps you see new perspectives. Not only will you see more clearly to plan a better response, but you will also better care for yourself, your family, and your community.