How do you handle crisis?

Advice from a counselor who’s been in the field

by Robert Horstman

Soldier, police officer, firefighter and medic. They all have one thing in common: They all know crisis. These are the men and women who have been through combat, have experienced loss and have had the unfortunate burden of processing extraordinary events and scenes, some of which never go away or can’t be unseen or experienced. This doesn’t make you damaged, broken, cracked or crazy; it does, however, cause us to use coping mechanisms to handle those demons or uncomfortable situations. Some of these mechanisms are very unhealthy and un-useful to our mind and body, such as drugs, alcohol or high-risk behaviors. Some are healthier, such as exercise, meditation or hobbies that help us heal. Journaling is another positive coping mechanism that lets you see your progress. 

According to the dictionary, a coping mechanism is an adaptation to environmental stress that is based on conscious or unconscious choice and that enhances control over behavior or gives psychological comfort. So, in Gumby-style, it is a way to control you and the garbage that you carry with you. The interesting thing about coping mechanisms is that they can be learned and unlearned, usually with practice and guidance. This can be self-taught or learned in therapy or group settings.  

I think an important part to remember or to understand is to recognize the stress/stressor and coping mechanism that we use to control the behaviors. “Feel the feeling.” I know that sounds like you’re sitting on some therapist’s couch while they ask you, “How does that make you feel?” The truth of the matter is once you can identify the coping mechanism and determine if it’s good or bad for you, that is when you produce real change and success. Change is good but, damn, is it uncomfortable and sometimes ugly.

Change takes time. The first step isn’t always the hardest, it’s staying on course. Human beings — even we supermen, wired tight, type A personalities — are creatures of habit. We do not like change, and it is easy for us to slip back into old habits, behaviors or coping mechanism. One of the biggest mistakes that we make is abandoning all hope when we fail or don’t conform to our new behaviors or coping mechanism. We will fall and we do fail, but that is not the important part. The important part is to get back up, try and try again, forgive yourself and keep striving forward. Seek out help and be honest with yourself and others about where you are in your healing process, because it is a process. Don’t believe your own bullshit but hold yourself accountable for your behaviors and actions. And, finally, we normally suck at asking for help because we are used to being the helper, guardian or warrior, so use your resources. Reach out to your partners, battle buddies, friends, family and, yes, even professional help such as at a crisis hotline [(800) 273-8255] or a clinic/hospital. Remember to stop, breathe, assess the situation and adjust accordingly. You are not damaged or broken, just adapting to your environment.

Robert “Hoss” Horstman is an adjunct professor of psychology at El Paso Community College. He has a master’s degree in counseling and a bachelor’s and associate’s degree in criminal justice. He served in the U.S. Army as a medic and is a 25-year veteran with the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office. Horstman is also a licensed chemical dependency counselor in Texas. 

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