“Dr. Duffy, please call me back right away. We’re really in crisis here.”
There was nothing unusual about this phone call. After all, I’m a psychologist. People rarely call to let me know things are rolling along smoothly.
And this Mom definitely had something salient on her mind. She had long suspected her teenage son, an honor’s student and accomplished athlete, had been smoking pot. But on this day, she had discovered the paraphernalia to prove herself correct: the tiny baggies, the rolling papers, the resin-stained, trippy-colored little glass pipe.
All the signs were there. She had a major league crisis on her hands.
But was this really a crisis, in the true sense of the word? The definition of crisis suggests an unstable, dangerous event that will dramatically impact all future events.
Unstable. Dangerous. All.
Crisis is big. Crises are rare. They hardly ever happen. We thankfully experience precious few actual crises in an entire lifetime. A serious injury; that’s a crisis. A death in the family. A wreck on the highway. 9/11.
Regardless of actual frequency, however, we live in a state of crisis far too often. We are crisis junkies. We tune to 24-hour news channels announcing crisis continually, screaming for our attention from every corner of the screen. Something terrible is happening, right under our noses. We’re in danger. They’re out to get us. We’re getting screwed. Words like collapse, devastation, catastrophe, disaster and, of course, crisis are all tossed casually around as if they’re ordinary.
And sometimes, we respond as if we’re in crisis when nothing at all is going on. I have experienced, and have had reported to me, that panic attack that comes “out of the blue.” Fear and anxiety are such the status quo, we don’t know much different. So, if we cannot find a crisis out in the world, we can create one within the confines of our own weary bodies.
And the anxiety that accompanies all of this “crisis” is far from benign. It is killing us, literally and figuratively. Our immune systems are compromised, our anxieties making us sick. Our bodies are on high alert, so we tax our organs, from heart to brain, to the point of exhaustion or all-out failure. And we are so focused on making it through the day that we enjoy far too few of our moments. We’ve convinced ourselves that, in order to survive, we need our backs to the wall. Anxiety and crisis, we have taught each other, are requisite.
That gradation between crisis and, say, issue, or problem, or situation, is neither negligible nor unimportant. Because when we are in a state of crisis, or convince ourselves we are, our minds and bodies automatically respond in kind. When we slip into crisis, we quickly move from a can-do, problem-solving mode to a mere survival mode.
Now, once upon a time in human history, the crisis mode was beyond handy; it could save our lives. We developed this remarkably keen ability to respond to crisis, almost instinctively, way back when man was faced with the physical threat of consumption by sabre-tooth tiger and the like.
Focus your resources. Run for your life. Scramble up the tree. Make it to tomorrow.
Mere survival. That’s the only reward for making it through crisis.
Of course, we hardly ever have to run from sabre-tooth tigers anymore, given extinction and all. Yet our bodies and minds still maintain this crisis response. And we unwittingly respond to the ordinary, everyday stuff life tends to present to us as if it’s crisis.
When I called the presumed weed smoker’s Mom, I asked her how she was handling the situation. She confirmed that she was in “full panic mode.” In the first few minutes of the call, the subject shape-shifted from her discoveries in his room, to wondering whether his grades might be dropping, whether he can keep his job, whether he’s hanging with the wrong crown, whether he could still go to college, and ohmygodwhatifhesdoingheroinshouldicheckhimfortrackmarks?
There was no good available in her mind to outweigh the bad. The athlete? The Honors student? The sweet kid she raised? All of that was over now. Now there was only The Massive Weed Crisis of 2014, the dramatic, awful shift that would negatively impact everything that was to follow, the beginning of the end. The Crisis.
I am not knocking this Mom. We all respond unnecessarily to life’s myriad issues, mislabeling far too many of them crises. To manage the corresponding anxiety, we pop a Xanax. We light up a cigarette. We pour our first drink just a little earlier today. We’re so desperate to quiet our noisy minds. But we’re going about it all wrong.
If we allow ourselves a moment, and perhaps a breath, we will quickly find that an awful lot of that noxious noise in our heads is just that. And allowed a moment of awareness, we carry the ability to silence those voices of doom easily, gracefully.
We need a revolution, away from the collective mindset of crisis and anxiety we’ve created, and toward peace of mind and kindness, toward ourselves and one another. We need to curb the harshness of our daily lives. We need to allow ourselves the space to gather the perspective to differentiate crisis from life. We have got to do away with our collective crisis addiction, so that we can think, and solve, and enjoy our moments. Otherwise, like the panicked Mom who discovered the weed, or that early hominid running for his life, we will never do anything more than make it through.
We owe it to ourselves, and to each other, to do better. Let’s agree to put an end to the Crisis Crisis.