Contain the Crisis

Man frustrated
August 11, 2016

Tragedies often lead to additional tragedies. When under the influence of the shock of traumatic stress, people, families, organizations, and communities often make uncharacteristic errors in judgment that lead to further losses.

Drunk driving charges, impulsive spending, violence at home and work, rash high-risk behaviors, precipitous resignations, increased suicide risk, and hostile blaming are examples of how traumatized people can make a bad situation worse.

Like the presence of police blockades and flares at a highway traffic accident, good crisis management quickly establishes a perimeter in attempt to contain the crisis. Crisis can lead to a loss of control, so leaders must immediately take charge of what they can control and “stop the skid”.

The same need is present psychologically. We can all understand why a construction worker would impulsively shout “I quit!”, following a frightening accident. He may have really liked that job just 24 hours ago. He may still need that job because he is living paycheck-to-paycheck and could have a family that is dependent on his income. Significant career-impacting decisions should be made thoughtfully when one is at their best. But very few people are at their best immediately after an event like that. Effective crisis response will slow down such irreversible behavior until some safe equilibrium resumes.

Psychologically, that process is supported when someone in a leadership position – a parent, employer, or recognized community leader – helps everyone to transition from chaos to a sense of order. When my mind is a panicked blur, I need quick, simple movement back to what I can understand and get my arms around. That sense of order is achieved through:

  • Meaningful information. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Keep it simple. Make it practical. Focus on solutions to immediate issues. Repeat it. Repeat it again.
  • Get back to a familiar schedule. We do best when our natural rhythms kick back in. Routine. No surprises. One foot in front of the other just like yesterday.
  • Successful completion of familiar tasks. Doing something reduces that sense of powerlessness and helps us focus on what we can do, rather than panic about what we cannot. The structure of doing what we know how to do is helpful in finding a “new normal”.

Ideally we would prevent the initial tragedy, but unfortunately they can and do happen. So, containing the crisis and preventing escalation is objective #1 before subsequent resiliency activities can occur.

Contributed by Bob VandePol, Executive Director, Employee Assistance Program, Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services.

Join us for the “Leadership: Leadership in a Time of Crisis” webinar on August 17, 2016 with Bob VandePol.