Ways you CAN help when a loved one is in crisis

A few years back, before I started learning the right way to be a coach, I decided to go ahead and take on an individual coaching client. A woman at my company was letting her fear hold her back. During our first (and only) coaching session, she shared some of what was going on with her, and I experienced an overwhelming sense of knowing was was right for her. I asked questions that did result in insight, but she never called for a second appointment.

When I reflect on that first attempt, I can actually feel what it was like to be in the conversation. That “overwhelming sense of knowing what was right for her” was both palpable and familiar. It had come up whenever a friend or loved one was in crisis, whenever I could see that their perspective on the issue was part of the problem they were experiencing. Each time I just couldn’t wait to let them know how they were screwing themselves up and how they could fix it.

If you’ve ever seen the internet video called “It’s Not About the Nail,” you’ve seen someone having the same experience. (If you haven’t seen it, take a moment right now.)

Fortunately, in the last few years I have had intensive training and ample practice in effective listening, which differs from habitual listening (such as we see from Jason in the video). People who are listening like this aren’t bad by any means! We just allow our internal conversation to override what is actually needed by the person who is speaking to us.

Earlier this month I wrote a post on what not to do when a loved one is in crisis. If you read it, you may have come away with a commitment to keeping your mouth shut.That was a good takeaway. But let’s not stop there.

The Do’s

When a loved one is in crisis, we can become a source of calm, a way back into the world instead of losing ourselves in the anxiety we’re experiencing. But we can only do this if we manage ourselves.

The following list of do’s covers both what we can do when we are actively listening to our loved one as well as what we can do throughout our lives when the crisis is several hours, days, or even weeks (or more) long.

What you can do includes:

    • Manage your own anxiety. When you notice yourself feeling restless or anxious, take three slow, deep belly breaths. This increases the flow of oxygen to your blood and into your muscles, which naturally helps you to relax.
    • Be present. Notice your base level of distraction and practice letting go of distractions. Tune in to the “here and now.” Keep your attention on your own breathing, or get a glass of ice water and focus your attention fully on the physical sensation of it. As soon as you can, return your attention to whatever is most important instead of a distraction.
    • Tell them you’re with them. While it can (unfortunately) do more harm than good to tell your loved one that “it’ll all be okay,” you can help by promising that no matter what happens, you’ll be with them. “I’m staying,” or “I’m here” are comforting.
    • Be patient. If your loved one has experienced a loss, he or she may not recover as quickly as you would like them to. They may not start job hunting, dating, or enjoying their typical hobbies and work when you want them to. They are grieving, and grieving takes its own time.
    • Recognize that their rationality may be temporarily gone. Any human in crisis mode is likely to undergo occasional or frequent experiences where the feelings of loss, anger, and panic are overwhelming. This experience is called an “amygdala hijack.” It happens when the part of your brain that keeps you alive in a crisis (such as a burning building or an invasion) kicks in. Learn about amygdala hijack, including how thinking is affected. Our rational brain is not engaged during a hijack. If you recognize this is happening frequently in yourself or your loved one, get support for yourself so you can respond in ways that are safe and effective.
    • Meet your own needs (for both the present and the future). Being patient does not mean ceasing all activity until your loved one returns to normal. You continue to have needs, and you deserve to meet your own needs, including nutrition, sleep, exercise, social support, peace, safety, and even development. If you are running a business, continue marketing and getting clients. If you have a job, go back to work as soon as you are ready. It’s okay for you to be fully present at work, too. Just focus on being fully present at home when you are there. If you start feeling run down, check in with yourself to see which of your needs are unmet. Consider calling a friend to help you with meeting them.
    • Get support. Friends, family, therapists, and coaches can all be valid sources of support and information. If your income has taken a significant hit, find support from someone who can help you figure out what to stop spending money on, where to keep spending your money, and which sources of money to draw on when.
    • Take it one day at a time. The more you try to plan for (and control) what might happen in a day or week or month, the more you will drive yourself crazy. Remind yourself that this is a process that will take its own time. Some days you and your loved one will feel the same, many days you’ll feel differently — one up and the other down, in an unpredictable teeter-totter of emotion. Whatever happens, it is temporary. Focus on getting through that one day (or that one hour) and know that things will change, even though you can’t predict (or control) how they will change.

Bottom Line

When any of us experiences a sudden loss, the results can be devastating. Family members of those most seriously impacted will experiences losses of their own while trying to be supportive of their loved ones. We can easily slip into behaviors that do more harm than good if we are not mindful and intentional about supporting rather than offloading our own anxiety on others.

You can be more effective by managing your own anxiety and staying mentally present with your loved one. Don’t rush things but know that the situation is temporary. If things have been going on “too long” in your perspective, get yourself some support.

Keep your focus on making sure you are taking care of yourself during their crisis.You can support them best by maintaining your own health and wellbeing while staying connected to them.

What do you try to keep in mind when a loved one is in crisis? What seems to help the most? Leave me a comment below and add to the conversation!


Amy Kay Watson coaches talented, brilliant, tender-hearted professionals to discover their destiny, own their power, and live their purpose with courage, humor, and compassion–even in a corporate environment. To learn more, go to CareerLeadershipAlignment.com.

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