How To Help A Friend In Crisis

by Stacey Curnow on · 20 comments

We think of the holidays as a happy time of giving to others. But sometimes the holidays are anything but happy for our friends and loved ones. Unfortunately, unexpected and undesirable events happen even in the month of December.

Have you ever felt totally at a loss when it comes to soothing or helping a friend in crisis? I remember when the surgeon came out after operating on my mom and said she had found cancerous lymph nodes (meaning the cancer had spread from her breast, meaning that she had a much bigger fight for her health ahead) and I felt the worst I had ever felt.

It took a lot of mental discipline to focus on what I did want (for my mom to be healthy and happy) and not on what I didn't want (which seemed to be staring me in the face), but I discovered that it is possible to make that shift. I read a great line on Danielle LaPorte's blog, White Hot Truth:

"Someone is in profound pain, and a few months from now, they'll be thriving like never before. They just can't see it from where they're at."

I really believe you can sit with someone in their sorrow and pain and still see them as they will be (and, really, as they are right now deep down). I remember taking care of really sick kids when I was a nursing student. At the time I cried to my nursing instructor, "How do you do it? It's so horrible." and she said, "You just do it. Because you can soothe. Because you'll help. Because that is enough."

It soon struck me that if I could be fully present and focus on what would bring delight to the room (a simple Cat's Cradle from string was always a big hit), I helped. When I could get a child to smile and laugh, I soothed. More than anything else, though, I remember how a parent's face would light up when I asked for stories of the child when she was well-and then projected a time in the future when she would be doing all the things she loved again. There was grace, and yes, healing, in those moments.

I have never believed that we help anybody by focusing solely on their sorrows and limitations. Of course, I have great compassion for the suffering, and I'll always try to soothe. (And you always know if you are soothing or not by the reaction you get.) But as soon as I can, I try to let them know that I also see their best and shining selves. And as it turns out, research supports this approach.

A research study at Case Western Reserve University has documented reactions in the human brain that show positive visioning is much more likely to have a positive effect than an interaction in which the "helper" focuses on the problem. The latter is almost always received as a negative judgment-even if it's not meant to be.

That makes sense, doesn't it? We know that people respond much better to a person they find inspiring and who shows compassion for them, rather than one who they perceive to be judging them, but even our best intentions can be misperceived-and this study shows that even if that misperception doesn't happen at a conscious level, it does happen on a cellular level.

Anthony Jack, assistant professor of cognitive science, philosophy and psychology, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to show neural reactions based on different coaching styles. This research built on something called Intentional Change Theory, which holds that positive and negative emotional attractors create psycho-physiological states that drive a person to think about change.

"We were really struck by one particular finding in the visual cortex, where we saw a lot more activity in the more positive condition than in the more negative condition," Jack explained. In other words, thinking about positive change produced a lot more activity in the parts of the brain associated with imagination, parts that influence basic visual processing and emotion. Jack says the fMRI images bear the neural signature of visioning, a critical process for motivating learning and behavioral change.

The bottom line? Spending time talking about a person's desired personal vision, even if the person is in crisis, will turn on the parts of the brain that are associated with openness-to solutions, to help-and better functioning. On the other hand, when people choose to focus on what isn't going well, it actually closes down future, sustainable change, and stirs the sort of emotions that lead a person to turn away from help. Consider that the next time you focus on the crisis rather than the solution!

Everyone has to look a crisis in the face and take it on. I'm a strong believer in learning from my mistakes, and like Maya Angelou, I truly believe that when you know better you do better. But when you do find yourself standing with someone in a crisis, focus on what's happening with faith that change is possible. Focus on what the person wants, rather than what they don't want. Because doing so makes all the difference in whether you will help them make positive, decisive change in the future.

Have you ever helped anyone define their personal vision in a time of crisis? How did you do it?

by Stacey Curnow

Stacey is a purpose and success coach who helps you give birth to your BIG dreams. To find your purpose and passion, check out her FREE eBook, The Purpose and Passion Guidebook.
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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Jennifer Richardson December 10, 2011 at 7:05 am

Hope is a fascinating thing and this wonderful perspective
stirs it strong in me
at at time
when I so SO needed it……so much thanks for that!!!!
Thoroughly inspired and grateful,


Stacey December 10, 2011 at 9:03 am

Hi Jennifer!

Thanks so much for your kind note! I’m so glad to know that you resonated with this post and that it came at just the right time!!

Here’s to HOPE — the big, sparkly wings to lift up you and the ones you love!!



Tess The Bold Life December 10, 2011 at 7:39 am

This is the most powerful thing to do and I learned it from a wise mentor and friend when I was 35 and my oldest daughter moved in with her boyfriend when she was a junior in high school. She was in so much pain and I couldn’t help her. Then my friend said, “See her with a smile on her face each time you think of her.” It’s exactly what I did several times a day. Before going to bed I would see that smile and tell her I loved her. She’s still married to Kevin and my granddaughter is graduating from high school in June. Isn’t life grand?

We have no business trying to fix things or believing we have the answers or solutions for others. As hard as that is for parents to know and do. Like Byron Katie says, “How can I know what is right for my children when I don’t know what is right for myself most of the time?”
Tess The Bold Life´s Last Fabulous Post ..Passion and Patience vs Doubt and FearMy Profile


Stacey December 10, 2011 at 9:11 am

Hi Tess!

Thanks so much for sharing the VERY grand story of your daughter and the positive outcome of what had felt like a very challenging circumstance. It’s a powerful testament to what happens when you focus on what you *do* want rather than what you don’t want.

How lovely and extraordinary that you shared some of Byron Katie’s wisdom. I LOVE her! She has taught me that stress is an alarm that wakes me up from believing that whatever I’m thinking is bad is true. Reality is always such a perfect teacher.

Yes, life is, indeed, very grand!

Thanks again for your thoughtful and thought-provoking comment!
Stacey´s Last Fabulous Post ..Mileposts in the Distance – Writing the Future in Present TenseMy Profile


suzen December 11, 2011 at 5:13 pm

Hi Stacey! That was wonderful!!! Thanks so much for sharing this! So much healing is done with our thoughts. How much better to picture ourselves thriving than languishing. I believe, as do you, that compassion is not necessarily steeping yourself in the issue at hand, but rather showing some light on better days in whatever way you can, even by distractions in the case of children.
p.s. If I’m ever ill I hope I have someone like you for a nurse! 🙂
suzen´s Last Fabulous Post ..Migraines? A New Approach Without DrugsMy Profile


Stacey December 12, 2011 at 6:56 am

Hi Susan!

Thanks SO much for you kind note! It looks like you like exclamation points as much a s I do!!

It’s so wonderful to connect with Lance’s readers and see that we resonate with same ideas! I’m so glad I know where I can go when I need to be seen in the best possible light. 🙂

Thanks again, Susan!
Stacey´s Last Fabulous Post ..How to be “Not Busy”My Profile


Galen Pearl December 12, 2011 at 12:11 pm

There is much wisdom in this article, but what struck me the most was how wonderful nurses are! I have been present for others in the hospital twice in recent months, and both times I marveled at the power nurses had to soothe and empower those in their care. The nurses even took the time to attend to whatever needs I had to make my time there more comfortable. The doctors were great, but the nurses were truly awesome.

But back to your message, we all have the opportunity to make a difference like that in people’s lives by focusing through the problem to the perfection.

Thanks for all you do to help people feel better.
Galen Pearl´s Last Fabulous Post ..The Good Old DaysMy Profile


Stacey December 13, 2011 at 6:34 am

Hi Galen!

Thanks so much for your kind response! I’m delighted that you’ve had such positive experiences with nurses!

Your take-away message from my post is so valuable: We all have the opportunity to make a difference. And the way you described “focusing through the problem to the perfection” is so lovely!


Megan Bord December 12, 2011 at 8:05 pm

Stacey, I was immediately drawn by the title of this post because, of late, I’ve had many friends in crisis and at times I’ve felt at a loss for words. Worse yet, there’s part of me that wants to shut down or turn away from those in crisis … until they get better on their own! Oh my gosh, trying to push the guilt away on that particular admission is tough, but therein lies human transparency.

I appreciated what you wrote in this post, especially the “science” behind focusing on a brighter future with and for those who are currently suffering. Metaphysics is terrific, but sometimes my rational brain needs a little science (even though I don’t like admitting that!).

I’ve read a few books by Thich Nhat Hanh, who also talks about how to help those in crisis. He describes a process that includes first opening up a space for another person’s suffering to exist without judgment. In other words, let the person suffering know that they can feel safe disclosing what’s happening, as authentically as it’s happening for them. I think once that space is established, then both sufferer and soother can decide when it’s time to move around in that space, looking at future possibilities.

I like the idea of combining his approach and yours: both holding the present moment tenderly, while also gently lifting our eyes toward the sun (a brighter future).

Thanks for capturing my attention and helping me give greater thought to something I’ve struggled with recently.

Wishing you the very best,


Stacey December 13, 2011 at 6:43 am

Hi Megan!

Thanks SO much for your candid and thoughtful reply. I really appreciate that you shared how difficult it is to support someone through a crisis because it is VERY challenging to be that honest and we have ALL been there!

I am a huge fan of Thich Nhat Hahn and I’m so glad that you bring up his transformative work here. I completely agree that his practice is a vital part of offering help.

Everyone really does need to feel seen and heard exactly where they are before anything else.

Thanks again for your thoughtful, candid and thought-provoking reply!!


Aileen | Kaizen Vision December 13, 2011 at 12:13 am

“spend­ing time talk­ing about a person’s desired per­sonal vision, even if the per­son is in cri­sis, will turn on the parts of the brain that are asso­ci­ated with openness-to solu­tions, to help-and bet­ter func­tion­ing. On the other hand, when peo­ple choose to focus on what isn’t going well, it actu­ally closes down future, sus­tain­able change, and stirs the sort of emo­tions that lead a per­son to turn away from help. ” What more reason do we need to cease the worry that happens when we’re wanting the best for someone? – That’s all we need to know – now if I could just live it 24/7
The mental discipline isn’t easy, but it’s worth the pursuit and the practice!
Aileen | Kaizen Vision´s Last Fabulous Post ..Listen, Your Story Has Secrets and Wisdom to ShareMy Profile


Stacey December 13, 2011 at 6:49 am

Hi Aileen!

Thanks so much for letting me know the quote that resonate most for you! Love that!

And I completely agree – I don’t want anyone to think that it’s easy to do what I suggest. Like you said, it is a practice – that does become easier with time. The thing is, too, that it may never be *easy*, but it is worthwhile to try and what I’ve found is that it always just *feels* better after I’ve focused on what I want rather than what I don’t want.

Thanks again for your kind comment! Lance has the best community!!


Cathy | Treatment Talk December 13, 2011 at 12:22 am

Hi Stacey,

The holidays do bring up pain for many people. I recently heard someone who has has her share of pain, say that we should look for joy where ever we can during the holiday season. Sometimes the joy might not be as often, but we still can appreciate it when we find it.

I love this quote, “Some­one is in pro­found pain, and a few months from now, they’ll be thriv­ing like never before. They just can’t see it from where they’re at.” – very true.
Cathy | Treatment Talk´s Last Fabulous Post ..What Everyone Ought to Know About Prescription Drug AbuseMy Profile


Stacey December 13, 2011 at 6:54 am

Hi Cathy!

Thanks so much for your kind comment! I’m especially glad to hear your thoughts since you work so closely with people in crisis.

Your reminder is such a valuable one! Appreciating what we have truly unlocks the fullness of life. Zorba the Greek called it the “full catastrophe”. 🙂

Thanks again and take wonderful care!


Sandra / Always Well Within December 13, 2011 at 9:04 pm


This was so enlightening! Thank you so much. I will definitely be taking your advice to heart. Much love to you.
Sandra / Always Well Within´s Last Fabulous Post ..One Powerful Word 2012: A Simple Approach to New Year’s ResolutionsMy Profile


Stacey December 14, 2011 at 9:48 am

Hi Sandra!

Thanks so much for your kind comment! I’m so glad to know that you appreciated this post. I always love seeing you in the comments!

Much love to you!
Stacey´s Last Fabulous Post ..How to be “Not Busy”My Profile


Jeffrey Willius December 14, 2011 at 1:33 pm

Great post, Stacey! I’ve experienced the power of presence, both as giver and recipient. Your insight about focusing on the vision, the hope, is really helpful.


Stacey December 14, 2011 at 2:28 pm

Hi Jeffrey!

Thanks so much for letting me know you found this post helpful! I’m so glad you’ve felt the power of presence, both as a giver and recipient. (I love how you put that!!)
Stacey´s Last Fabulous Post ..How to be “Not Busy”My Profile


S December 20, 2011 at 8:31 pm

Wow – great post.

I think I’m more in the process of being with friends (or in my case a family member) in crisis and this was really good to read and to think about.



Stacey December 21, 2011 at 8:38 pm

Hey S!

Thanks so much for your kind comment! I’m so glad to know that my post may help you support a family member in crisis!

All the best to you!
Stacey´s Last Fabulous Post ..A Simple Mathematical Formula for Happiness and Success (Really!)My Profile


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