What To Do When The World’s Crashing Down

I’ve had a couple of major sky-is-falling crises in my life. Times when everything was going wrong, and my brain wasn’t helping matters one bit. Money stuff was all wrong, relationships were going to shit, and my anxiety was through the roof. Every waking moment was a nightmare because of depression or grief, and there was no end in sight.

Maybe you’ve never had an era in your life like that, or maybe you’re feeling a little queasy seeing someone talk about it so openly. Either way, let’s figure out how to weather the storm. Let’s punch disaster in the nuts. How?

Survive.

That’s number one. I know it seems trite, but sometimes all you’re capable of is crouching down and covering your head as the blows rain down. You won’t win the round, but you’ll make it to the bell.

Where the hell is the ref?!
Credit: Jinho Jung via flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

As always, I take an awareness approach. “Life is terrible right now, and it’s not going to get better any time soon. That’s interesting.” Recognize it rather than trying to wish it away, telling yourself everything’s fine, or berating yourself for feeling a certain way. Why invalidate your own experience? Why pretend that what you’re going through “isn’t so bad,” or that you’re “blowing things out of proportion”? Sure, we’ll want to take a broad perspective (see below), but don’t gaslight yourself.

Your experience of the moment is largely out of your hands, I’m sorry to say. While nothing can make you feel sad, or angry, or hopeless; you feel that way. Might as well feel the shit out of it.

Feel your feelings.

You’ve recognized that things are screwed up and that you feel terrible. Now, quit shoving that feeling away and feel it. Suppressing negative emotions doesn’t work. Wait, let me try that again: Suppressing negative emotions makes things worse. Don’t like feeling sad? Tough shit, your brain will tuck the sadness away in its squishy little pocket and spring it on you two-fold in an hour or two. You know that’s how your brain works, but you still try to suppress. Quit it.

Feel your emotion without forcing it. If you’re angry, be angry. If you’re mournful, mourn. Just don’t fall into the trap of catharsis.

I used to have a bit of an anger problem when I was 19, and I thought that punching a heavy bag and my steering wheel and my pillow would help. 10 times out of 10, I just felt worse.

Catharsis is a concept as old as ancient man breaking a spear over his knee after letting a deer get away. It’s the idea that you can burn away emotion if you just freak the fuck out a little bit. Crying every hour on the hour even if you’re already exhausted. Imagining a traumatic scene over and over again because, goshdarnit, you just don’t feel enough despair. Raging, screaming in your car, punching a wall. Doesn’t work, boss.

Don’t suppress, and don’t force. Feel the feelings that you have. That’s healthy, and it works.

Step back.

So, shit’s all messed up and you’re trying to survive, you’re feeling your feelings even though they hurt… now what? Well, it’s a matter of perspective. What I’m not saying: “Oh it’s not so bad because other people have it way worse.” No, anyone who says something like that is an asshole. Suffering is suffering, and it sucks.

What I am saying: Your crisis isn’t your whole world. It isn’t the world, it’s not the universe, and it’s not everlasting. No matter how bad things are, life is always a sine wave, with ups and downs. Even in total bleak grief, there are moments when it lets up. Notice this.

If you’re currently in the depths of despair, you may not believe me, but it’s true. If you currently have low mood, your current episode of depression had an onset, it has a texture, and it will fade out. I want you to notice those parts, those features and facets. That helps dispel the internal myth that depression (or anger, or hopelessness) just is, and that it’s constant and unchangeable. No, these episodes start, they do some kickflips and ollies, and then they leave. Dispelling this internal myth will help.

Step way back.

This one’s a little harder. It means asking “what is this person going through?” about yourself. It means viewing yourself and your struggle as if from a distance, and doing so with a sense of curiosity.

I’m not kidding, this is real shit, and it works. Here’s what you do: When things are really really bad, imagine viewing yourself from far away. Consider this human, this frail creature that is hurting so badly, and wonder about them. “What is this person feeling? Why does it hurt so much? What is this person’s life like? Who is this person?”

This concept is derived from the mindfulness-based concept of detachment. What I want you to get out of it:

  • Some breathing room. You can have an emotion without it beating the shit out of you.
  • A bit of room to problem-solve. It’s easier to help other people with their problems than it is to help yourself, and this will give you a bit of that perspective.
  • A sense of depth. I want you to see the vast dance of emotions and circumstances at work, not just the ones currently pummeling you.

What I don’t want:

  • Intellectualization. Don’t step back and then proceed to rationalize all of your feelings, or pretend that you’re a counselor who can out-think and out-analyze them. You’re not. Feel the feelings.
  • Emotional detachment. It’s good to step back and consider, but do so compassionately. This is a creature in pain. Love them, be curious about them, and continue feeling.

Keep going.

This is big. It requires faith, and it requires courage.

I remember a time when my OCD was really bad. Like, couldn’t sleep because of sweating-shaking-panic bad. I had physical symptoms (aches, pains, stiffness), I couldn’t think coherent thoughts for more than a few minutes at a time due to other nasty thoughts intruding, and nothing was fun. Nothing was okay.

I got straight As and kicked ass on the GRE that semester.

Is this because I’m super awesome and great at getting work done? Hell no, I had just been through this a few times before. This wasn’t my first time at the rodeo, and I knew that, even though the end wasn’t in sight, it would end. This allowed me to keep doing certain things that needed doing, no matter how painful it was, no matter how my brain raged and resisted. I came through the episode (once I had gotten properly medicated) feeling kind of good about myself, and optimistic about future set-backs.

You’ll get through it too. You always do. Have faith in life’s weird rhythm, and be brave.

Comments? Stories?

9 thoughts on “What To Do When The World’s Crashing Down

  1. I’ll try not to be too wordy , but you did ask for stories, so…I have to be honest and tell you that a large portion of what you have written makes alot of sense to me. I would describe my current situation as a personal crisis, however It gives me some hope that I can make it through what I’ve been going through for months now.

    I’m 19 and I’ve been experiencing what I believe to be a combination of various things. I’ve always had really awful anxiety, but in the past few months it has been escalating to affect everything in my life. I’m not in a position to seek out immediate help/ therapy for anything on my own, but am blatantly aware of my need to receive some guidance in regards to my mental and emotional health. I never believed it was possible to be in such a state. I feel like I have transcended reality in a bizarre way.

    I’ve done enough research through these few months and feel confident in assuming that some sort of OCD is the root. To me , it’s like I’ve lost my identity, and things that never phased me now cause intense anxiety and fear.

    I just had to let you know that what you’ve said makes sense to me, and I’ll be taking your advice for the future.

    Oh, I wanted to mention that your videos have been useful too. I don’t know if you intend to be funny but the dry comments tucked into the ‘lessons’ are pretty funny!

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Joseph!

      As for the anxiety, definitely see someone when you can. In the meantime, know that you’re not alone in this, and that there will be a happy future-you who barely remembers this episode. Honestly, anxiety and pain blunt memory, otherwise no one would ever go through childbirth twice.

      If this is OCD, you’re going to be having a lot of thoughts that you’ll want to “push away,” and that you might find deeply distressing. See if you can allow those thoughts to drift by without allowing them to compel you to do anything (neither suppress nor succumb). Easier said than done, I know (I’ll post more about my experience with OCD later), but it’s a start.

      View yourself with the same compassion you would offer a friend, and be as kind to yourself as you would be to an honored guest.

  2. I appreciate the part about ” being as kind to yourself as an honored guest.” I definately need to work on that immensely. I’ve been driven to the point where I’ve stopped thinking of myself as a ” human being” and often find myself questioning whether I am worthy of enjoying little things that get me through the day. I’ve got lots of work to do. Thanks for the considerate reply, Ian.

  3. Here’s my aberrant fairy tale. Once upon a time, I was romantically involved with a fellow for five years. The road we were on had its’ bumps, but it was generally fit for travel. One day, our carriage hit a rock and he got laid off from work. We pulled through financially. Not much changed except we pulled our belts a little tighter….oh, and he began imbibing.

    The next fork in the road was a blur. Somehow, we got married. Shortly thereafter, his casual drinking turned into crying phone calls at 4AM asking me to pick him up from fuck knows where. I would sit on the couch trying to watch something to calm myself but my body would shake and shake and feel cold and desperately out of breath from my heart zooming as fast as it could and my hands clenching so hard it hurt. Where is he? He isn’t driving home, is he? Does HE know what he is doing?! He attempted to get me to join him at the bar, but I just couldn’t. Part of it was that I didn’t want to encourage him. The bigger fish was that I developed social anxiety. There were times that you couldn’t force me to go out of the house. I would get super worked up over simple things like going to the store or getting gasoline. It didn’t help that I was home alone most of the time, curled in a ball, quivering and hyperventilating. Finally, after a year or so of being under extreme physical and mental stress and trying over and over to convince him he was alcoholic, I kicked him out and divorced him. I wish I would have done it sooner, but I learned a lot from that shitty last two of the six years, so I cannot complain about it too much more.

    The point of my story is that, even though I was under extreme duress, I was able to look at the bigger picture and get through it. I was good at feeling my emotions, maybe a little too good. It got to a certain point where I would look at my situation from a third person’s perspective (mindfulness based detachment, anyone?) and realize that I was being TOO understanding of his actions. I decided the bottom line was that I wasn’t happy, nor would I ever be, no matter how many chances I gave him. Coping was not living. So I made my final decision and executed it with a strong spine.

    After all of that, my anxiety SPIRALED. I was beaten down from the constant state of stress I had experienced. I holed myself up, avoiding functions, making people mad. It took me a long time to realize that the safety solidarity gave me was not worth it. I was missing out. Using all I have learned, I am FINALLY on the way up.

    I now know that I am not WEIRD for having troubles with social situations. Anxiety is a normal emotion that everyone feels; I just have trouble being okay with it. I need to pull it close and bury my face in its’ neck; look it carnally in the eyes and call it my lover.

    Ian, you’ve helped me so much by sharing your story. Maybe I’ll help someone by sharing mine.

    1. “I need to pull it close and bury my face in its’ neck; look it carnally in the eyes and call it my lover.” I think I need you to ghostwrite for me. Or at least punch up my prose.

      Thank you for sharing your story. I’m sure there’s a lot more to it than that, but it really illustrates the insidious, sneaking nature of trauma. Most trauma isn’t “this bad thing happened this once,” it’s “I didn’t notice the world crashing down until I was buried and had to claw my way out.” I’m glad you made it through.

      1. I’m pleased you like my odd writing style. By the time my brainwaves hit my fingertips, ideas usually turn into something either lyrical or vulgar. For the record, I think your own prose is perfectly suited to its’ purpose: informing the masses while making them nod their heads and laugh uncontrollably. Consistency is very important and that is NOT something your writing lacks.

        Trauma CAN most definitely be like a pack of highly trained ninjas slowly ganging up on you in the fog of darkness and your own denial. Once you know they are there, you experience an ‘Oh, shit’ moment and either become buried in their attacks or pommel them in the face. I am dually glad I had the reflexes to break some noses.

        P.S. Even if you and a handful of others are the only ones that read my comments, it feels really good to have an outlet for some of my despairing thoughts and memories. Woo! Free therapy

  4. Thanks for writing this. Wow – it boggles my mind to KNOW that YES – people go through these things every day and they somehow survive and right now it’s me… I am going through some very big stuff (me, the strong, ‘I can do this’ type) with what seems like something around every blind corner. Each morning, I read this – and it really helps.

  5. Some excellent approaches, save for: “Your experience of the moment is largely out of your hands,” being rather a contradiction with: “While nothing can make you feel sad, or angry, or hopeless; you feel that way. Might as well feel the shit out of it.” Yes, Virginia. There are people, and things, that can MAKE you feel sad, angry, hopeless…. So sick of that lie – and it is a destructive lie meant, I think, to make the truly sad, angry, hopeless, feel absolutely like shit – had they had any question about it.

  6. Thank you so much for posting this. I feel like I’m right in the middle of a huge tidal wave, and reading this gave me so much comfort. “You’ll get through it too. You always do. Have faith in life’s weird rhythm, and be brave.” This was just what I needed.

Comments? Stories? Write something!