06/08/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

How to Survive - And Thrive - in the Face of a Crisis

There's a lot of fear in the air. We're in the middle of what many are calling the biggest financial crisis since the great depression.

So how do we deal with this? How do we survive -- and even thrive -- during this crisis?

Our fastest growth happens when we have roughly equal levels of challenge and support. If we have lots of challenge and little support, we tend to crumble and become overwhelmed. If we have lots of support and little challenge, we tend to get soft and spoiled. In either case, we suffer.

For example, think about learning to play tennis. If you got lots of coaching and support, but only played against people you could easily beat, you wouldn't grow very fast. On the other hand, if practice involved nothing but returning 100 mph serves, most people would give up in despair. Or think about parenting. If you give a child everything they want without challenging them to take responsibility for anything, you spoil them. But if you give them nothing but criticism, that doesn't work either. Instead, the key is to provide lots of love and support, while also providing a commensurate level of challenge.

Now, what usually happens in a crisis is that as the level of challenge increases, this triggers our fears. Fear causes contraction, so our natural response is to pull inwards. In some cases, this can be prudent, such as when we cut back on discretionary spending or renegotiate some of the commitments on our time. In these cases, we're reducing our level of challenge to match our level of support.

However, our fears also cause us to want to cut back on our support resources. We may believe we need to "suck it up" and handle things all on our own. Or we may pull back from our friends because we don't want to be vulnerable with them, or bother them with our problems.

And this is where challenge often turns into crisis.

Reducing our level of support makes our challenges seem even larger. This creates more fear, which causes more contraction and less support. This cycle feeds on itself, until we find ourselves in a full blown emergency.

In contrast, the key to thriving in a crisis is to smother your challenges with additional support. In response to fear, don't shrink -- expand. Create new habits of self-care. Reach out to your friends. Harness your courage, and use it to seek out the places where you've been in fear or denial. Develop new skills.

Or do what top athletes do when they want to embrace the next level of challenge.

Hire a coach.

A rising tide lifts all boats. But when the river of life turns into white water rapids, we're faced with a choice. We can let our fear turn the challenge into a crisis, or we can acquire enough support to turn the challenge into an opportunity.

We're entering a period of remarkable growth and change, and a powerful set of global challenges are emerging to spur us to this next level of learning. This can be either scary or exhilarating.

What will it be for you?

To contact the author directly, please feel free to email whetten AT

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