Getting Emotionally Organized in a Crisis

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In my work as a coach, I hear a lot of different versions of how people react to crisis. Some people describe that crisis is when they’re at their best, others, when they feel they’re at their worst, and some of us feel both ways at different times.

Especially if you’re someone who reacts to crisis by feeling like you’re in a fog, it can be helpful to slow down and get emotionally organized.

When leaders are not aware of our own needs and inner life, we can unintentionally make a crisis more stressful for the people we’re leading.

Taking the time to get organized about our own emotions and associations can help us:

  • Make clearer, more balanced decisions
  • Have more brain space to see the situation in front of us for what it is
  • Make plans for how to regulate ourselves and anticipate our biggest triggers
  • Build trust with the people we lead by showing them that we are working to integrate our thoughts and feelings
  • Keep ourselves, and others, safer by thinking through real consequences and options.

How to Use this Article

If you can, gather your trusted friends, family, and/or colleagues and ask for their support in talking through your thoughts and emotions. Use the prompts below to think through different aspects of what’s on your mind.

If you don’t have time to meet with others, or don’t have people you feel you can talk to, use the reflection questions to journal, or ponder while eating breakfast.

Basically, what Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is saying is that when our basic survival needs are threatened, it’s hard for us to deal with anything else. Source: Neel Burton.

Step One: Address Your Survival Needs With Social Stories

As old Maslow told us, it’s hard to think about much of anything else when our basic needs aren’t being met.

Some people right now are experiencing immediate threats to their survival: their health, mental wellbeing, or financial survival, or the survival of people who are their dependents. If that’s happening to you, that’s what needs to be addressed first.

For other people, the challenge is the looming unknown of survival threats, and the stress of not knowing what lies ahead.

For many people who are constantly under attack in the U.S., such as people of color, low income people, queer, trans and gender nonconforming people, and people with disabilities, ongoing survival threats are not unique to coronavirus. For people with privileged identities, this type of mortality stress might feel new.

If you are noticing that stress about unknown survival threats is making it difficult to focus on in-the-moment leadership decisions, a technique you can try is to write what occupational therapists call “social stories:” personal game plans for what you will do in different scenarios.

This is an example of a social story about a plan for feeling angry. You can use pictures, words, or both. Source:

There are a lot of scenarios that are difficult to plan for because of the scale of what’s unknown. Doing your best to think through one plan about what you could do in different situations can help your brain quiet in the moment.

If your mind is getting pulled to survival threats and away from the moment, try preparing some of the following social stories for yourself to refer back to:

  • While social distancing is called for, I will______________________.
  • If I start to feel sick, I will______________________.
  • If I run low on food, I will________________.
  • If I am having trouble getting enough sleep, I will________________.
  • If I run out of money, I will________________.
  • If I am struggling with childcare, eldercare, and/or pet care, I will________________.
  • If I start to feel lonely, I will ________________.
  • My plan for changing my plan as I get new information is ______________.

Step Two: Think Over Your Social and Emotional Needs

If you feel secure that you have some basic plans for your survival needs, take some time to organize your emotions and associations.

Ask yourself:

  • What am I feeling right now?
  • What sensations am I noticing in my body?
  • What do I know about what helps me regulate myself physically and emotionally?
  • How are the experiences I’ve had in my life impacting how I’m feeling about this particular moment?
  • How is COVID-19 impacting my relationships?

Step Three: Consider How Your Brain is Making Meaning

This crisis brings up a number of very big, existential human themes that each person has a different relationship with. The better you understand your own relationship to the underlying themes of the crisis, the more likely it is that you’ll feel emotionally oriented when you are coming into contact with other people’s feelings and reactions.

It’s actually totally normal and good to have existential questions come up during crisis, so if you’re having an existential crises, try saying to yourself, “Great work!!”

Ask yourself: What feelings and associations do I have to the following themes?

  • Uncertainty
  • Control
  • Death
  • Vulnerability
  • Change
  • Isolation
  • Interconnection
  • Illness
  • Aging
  • Power
  • Viruses
  • Loss
  • Bodies
  • Canned tuna
Don’t even get me started on the associations I have with canned tuna.

Step Four: Help Out in the Ways You Can/Help Less if You Are Harming Yourself

Some people’s brains react to crisis by focusing on ways that they are in danger. This is a really important survival skill and evolutionary perk of being a human.

Some people react to crisis by playing down their own needs or fears, which can lead to being overly helpful, or to helping as a form of coping or dissociation. This is also really important survival skill and evolutionary perk of being a human.

Most of us move all over the spectrum of how we react to danger. We can have compassion for all of the ways our brains react to stress, and also pay attention to whether we feel that we’re out of balance.

If you’re feeling like you’re focusing a lot on danger and are looking for more spaciousness to offer to others:

  • Spend time on steps 1–3 so that you can assure yourself that you have thought through your own needs and that it’s safe to consider others.
  • Think through the places where you have security and resources.

Experiment with shifting your focus by asking:

  • How can I support and care for others in this crisis?
  • Who is near me and what do they need?
  • What resources do I have access to and how can I offer them?
  • Who else is already in motion organizing mutual aid and how can I take part?
  • Who is most vulnerable in this crisis?

If your brain gets stuck on a worry about your personal safety, go back through your own needs and write some social stories to make a personal plan.

If you’re noticing that you’ve been focusing a lot on helping and are wondering if you’re playing down your own needs or fears:

  • Push yourself to reflect on the questions listed in steps 1–3 above.
  • If it’s too hard to reflect on, ask a trusted friend, relative, or colleague to offer their thoughts on things you might need or ways you could care for yourself.
  • Ask yourself: do I need to step back in any way to attend to ways I am in danger or need help myself?

Step Five: Change What You Can When You Can

COVID-19 is causing irreparable harm and loss. We do not need to find a “silver lining,” be positive, or try to find a bright side.

Simultaneously, one of the paradoxes of crises is that they shock the system, which opens portals for potential change.

Dr. Peter T. Coleman (Director or the Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution) and his colleagues have found in their research on sustainable peace that shocks to a system — events that jostle and upend the status quo — can make dramatic systemic changes possible that seemed impossible before.

Ask yourself:

  • Is this shock to the system opening any portals for change that I can see?
  • Where are the cracks in this moment where I can push for deeper change around inequality and systemic oppression?

Step Six: Assemble a Diverse Crisis Team

When you are leading in a crisis, part of your job is to try to “see” the system you are working in as accurately as possible. Another lesson from Peter’s research is that the more parts of the system that your team can see, and the more complex the aspects they can see, the better decisions you’ll be able to make.

In the example of the decision to close NYC public schools, the teachers have more information on the impact on teachers and on the learning arc for students, parents have the most direct experience of how childcare and food access would be impacted, epidemiologists are tuned to see how kids act as “disease vectors,” kids have the most to share about what it‘s like for them to be out of school, etc. A plan that takes into account multiple perspectives and forms of knowledge is a better, more accurate plan and can better account for unintended consequences.

Ask yourself:

  • If I need to make some decisions, who can I talk with who sees things differently from me? Who knows things that I don’t know?
  • What unintended consequences might result from my decision? How can I investigate the unintended consequences that I might not consider?

Step Seven: Focus on What You Can Control

Your job in a crisis is to think carefully about the big picture, take stock of your emotions and needs, and then focus on the things that are within your sphere of influence.

Ask yourself:

  • What can I control about my physical health and emotional wellbeing?
  • What is within my sphere of influence for changing what I can about the bigger system?
  • What is my role in this big story?

I’m thinking of all of you in this wild time, take care of yourself, others, and our community, we’re in this together.

Pippi Kessler is a nationally-recognized organizational psychologist, facilitator, trainer, and leadership coach, and has trained thousands of people at nonprofits, universities, schools, and activist groups across the country. She is the cofounder of, a project that matches people with progressive activist organizations and is the New York Coordinator of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable. She received her M.A. in Social-Organizational Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. To book a workshop or coaching session with Pippi, visit

Gratitude to Jules Skloot and Abby Levine for their ideas and edits, and to my mother, Sara Cohen, who taught me about social stories.

Consultant and coach Pippi Kessler has trained thousands of people across the country to use their power for good.

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