When Disaster Strikes

Lightning Striking Disaster

As a professional organizer, most of my posts are intended to help readers gain control over their time, space and belongings. Unfortunately, life periodically casts us into unexpected and sometimes devastating circumstances: illness, death, accidents, job loss, broken relationships and catastrophic weather can leave us feeling anything but in control.

When disaster strikes, it is tempting to launch into a self-criticizing mindset:

  • “If only I hadn’t…”
  • “I never should have…”
  • “Why didn’t I…?”
  • “This is all my fault.”
  •  “I should have known better!”

Thoughts such as these are rarely helpful, especially while we are in the midst of coping with the trauma and chaos of tough times. Instead, keep a few truths in mind:

  • Most of us generally make the best decisions we can in the moment with the information we have.
  • Everyone will occasionally make poor choices. This is part of being human. There will be a time down the road to reflect and learn, but during the heat of crisis is not the time.
  • Much of life is simply beyond our control. Odds are we will eventually be caught in the net of extenuating circumstances, often for which there is no one to blame.
  • Tragic events are painful and we need to work through them. There are no easy or pleasant paths around them. Forward progress begins when we accept this reality.

The question remains, what can we do to maximize our peace when the world seems to be crumbling? How do we cope with the nagging need to regain a measure of control and “fix” what is wrong? Obviously, there is not a single process that will work for everyone. Furthermore, I do not propose to be a therapist or expert in dealing with grief, loss or stress. At the same time, there are a few steps that I have observed are useful in restoring a sense of direction in tumultuous times.


We are creatures of habit, so when our routines and habits get interrupted, it is very unsettling. Disasters tend to prevent us from living our lives in the “usual manner,” compounding the trauma of the event itself. To the extent possible, it is helpful to try and put in place a few new routines given the new circumstances. Simple things, such as where or what we eat or how/when we get ready in the morning can be empowering. This is especially true when children are involved; try and add whatever structure you can to the day.


When life is running along smoothly, we may accomplish long lists of tasks without much thought. However, when we are in shock or under stress, completing even a few small steps can be frustratingly difficult. It is important not to compare your productivity “before” with the pace at which you perform in this new environment. Keep track of even minor achievements (e.g. emptying the dishwasher or completing a stack of paperwork), and be willing to acknowledge them as concrete evidence of progress at day’s end.


When facing turmoil, many people withdraw. This is understandable: others may not be able to understand what we are enduring, saying or doing things that are either unhelpful or even painful. * At the same time, isolation can lead to depression. You may not wish to go to a fun social gathering, but maybe you could attend a support group or invite a close friend for coffee. If you have been displaced or had to relocate against your will, be on the alert for someone with whom you might be able to establish a connection.

[*Note: one response to such individuals is, “Thank you for caring.” This is a way to acknowledge their desire to help, without needing to explain why their contribution is not what you need to hear.]


Most people show more kindness and mercy to others than they ever do to themselves. Catastrophic situations typically put us into a tailspin, resulting in struggles with things such as memory, sleep, appetite, mental focus and physical strength. Few people operate at peak performance under duress, particularly over long periods of time. Give yourself permission to rest when you can, to move more slowly and to delegate or relinquish “to dos.”


Stressful circumstances are agitating, making it a challenge to relax. If possible, make a conscious effort to access an external stimulus that calms you down. Music, exercise and artistic expression (drawing, writing, knitting, etc.) are just a few examples. When I’m dealing with something deeply upsetting, I typically start cleaning out closets. A loved one of mine used to calm herself by stroking her pet. Whatever you choose let the people around you know that this is “therapeutic” for you, and that you need to be doing this to stay centered.


Odd as it may seem, one of the best ways to get your mind off of your troubles is by serving other people. The ability to positively impact another is empowering… a subconscious reminder that you have the ability to make something good happen. Regardless of what you are dealing with, there is probably someone in your sphere who needs support or assistance. Shifting our focus off of ourselves and onto another provides an almost tangible relief from our own stress. If nothing else, we give ourselves something else to think about for a little while.

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Have you endured a disastrous time? What helped you get through to the other side?