“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.” 12-step program Serenity Prayer

People commonly think that organizing doesn’t matter during difficult times. Sometimes giving up normal routines is unavoidable, but organizing can often decrease stress and be even more important when life is tough. When I suddenly became the caregiver of a very frail elder, re-organizing many areas of my home, activities, thinking, and life not only made things easier, but was calming and reassuring, and I believe this would be true for others as well. Why?

Although some life crises do not require paperwork or record-keeping, most situations do. Crises that involve finances, taxes, legal issues, and many health problems (among many others) usually need considerable paperwork, and the better organized you are, the easier managing the difficult time will be.

Few tasks are as mindless as opening mail or filing. Just like knitting or other crafts, the physical activity – easy, limited, repetitive movement – of organizing can be soothing. Since every unfinished task weighs on us, increasing stress and undermining self-esteem, getting these aspects of life under control will lower stress bit by bit.

Similarly, regular routines are comforting – part of the distress of many crises is the upending of our normal patterns and ways of life, so the more that we maintain our usual routine, the more at ease we feel. Household tasks reassure us that some part of our lives remains normal, that while our world may never be the same, it may not be so different either. Routines distract from worries about the future and help us focus on NOW. Keeping up with regular organizing and household tasks enables knowing that whatever your future may be, these actions will support a better life. Even better, organizing your space, papers, belongings, or time may help you feel in control, a great relief when some or many areas are not in control.

Many crises require giving up activities that constitute part of our identity. These shifts can be wrenching and difficult to accept, but the sooner we face reality and make any changes required to effectively cope, the easier this transition will be. Such situations often require rearranging our physical surroundings as well as our routines and identity; of these issues, the physical changes may be easiest and may aid emotional acceptance of the new reality.

Coping with crisis and change is made more difficult by mourning for a previous way of life. When your reality changes, continuing to long for your world to be the way it was before the crisis may delay adjustment. If your post-crisis life can change for the better you are fortunate, but if the change is permanent, then the sooner you adjust your environment, thoughts, and emotions to your present situation, the better you will cope and the happier you will be.

Most of the difficulty of change is caused by resistance and refusal to adapt which makes the situation so much worse than it has to be. Re-structuring many areas of my home to meet current needs helped me recognize that what was really needed was to give up activities I valued, beliefs about what I could do, and the part of my identity that came from those activities. Acceptance is tough but denying reality or refusing to adapt will not cause the situation to change back to what you want it to be. You might as well do what you can to be as comfortable and happy as possible in your present circumstances. (Refusing to be happy despite whatever has changed in your life will not make anything better either.)

For many people, the loss of a loved one triggers a spiraling depression and sometimes even hoarding. You cannot return your life to the way it was by letting your present comfort and safety and future security be jeopardized by acquiring. You do not honor the memory of the person you lost by losing control of your housekeeping, finances, or personal business. Letting your emotions take charge of your life and actions is likely to lead to great harm. Things cannot fill the empty ache in your heart – only acceptance can do that.

Effectively coping with change requires flexibility. A ‘rolling’ crisis, that is one that goes through many stages, such as a progressive illness, may require many successive adaptations as conditions change. In any crisis, resistance and emotionality wastes time and energy that could be better used for coping. Acceptance that change is necessary allows adaptation and adjustment to proceed sooner, more easily, and with much less stress.

You are entitled to whatever feeling or emotion you choose, but not every emotion serves your best interests, that is, your long-term healthiest outcome. No emotion or reaction is inevitable in response to any situation, but being able to choose your emotions and reactions requires practice in normal times so that this skill will be available when you need it. Meditation, that is, consciously clearing your mind of all thoughts and gently pushing aside those that pop up, is the best tool for learning to manage your emotions.

Another way to cope with crisis is to constructively anticipate what is likely to happen. The most fundamental reality of life is that everything changes. Many life changes are entirely predictable – we know we will become elderly, lose muscle, likely become more frail, and have more difficulty carrying out everyday tasks. The more that you anticipate potential limitations by acting when your body is more cooperative, the easier life will be when it is not. This is true whether the action needed is clearing out, reducing hazards, organizing your space or papers, losing weight, or getting fit. The longer you wait to do any of these things, the harder they become. (This doesn't mean don't do them – they are still worth doing – just accept that such activities will be harder to do and require more effort. That’s the price of having waited; this is not a punitive or judgment issue, just reality.)

Part of managing any crisis or change situation optimally means resisting the impulse to panic or allow depression to take over. Many crises trigger fear, often leading to impulsive reactions. Although some instinctive reactions can be beneficial, many are not. Most non-instantaneous crises would be better handled by playing through potential outcomes from various actions and identifying the most beneficial or least harmful. Evaluating outcomes also enables finding ways to reduce risks and downsides contained in nearly all options (if you do not see any potential adverse outcomes from a possible action, that should be a red flag that you are not looking closely enough or are being blinded by your emotions).

Reducing risk is also a way to proactively deal with crises. Although many crises (such as, earthquakes or other acts of nature) cannot be prevented, their risk is known and in most situations, steps can be taken in advance to prevent or reduce damage. Many cities offer training in disaster preparedness and response which aids confidence and correct reactions; if you put off getting trained until a disaster occurs, it will be too late. Many human-caused risks can be prevented or anticipated, and it is wise to take whatever steps are needed.

Taking care of yourself as a matter of habit will support living a more organized life that prevents many crises and strengthen you for coping well with those that can’t be avoided. The PRESENT principle is a good guide for what this means.

The dominant lesson from most life crises is ‘streamline, streamline, streamline’. The fewer objects you have to take care of and external demands you have on your time and energy, the better you will cope. The less you acquire and retain, the less you will be burdened and pressured. The fewer distractions you have, the better you can focus on whatever life throws at you and the better your chances of flourishing despite whatever changes happen. And NEVER GIVE UP!

© Gloria Valoris, 2014

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