Crisis Survival Skills

crisis survival skills

Crisis Survival

Has the current state of the world left you feeling more anxious and overwhelmed than you have in past years?  You’re not alone– Recently, the US has reported drastically elevated rates of adverse mental health symptoms, such as anxiety and depression.  When negative emotions become too intense, they can cause a dangerous state of mental crisis– potentially leading to impulsive or risky decisions, and the unwanted repercussions that follow.  

Thankfully, intensely emotional situations can be managed by employing crisis management skills.  These skills can reduce your emotional response to a situation, allowing you to remain in control of your actions.  When used during a crisis state they can be very effective at managing intense, unwanted emotions.  Crisis management skills are easy to learn and can be used by anyone at any time, and can be a critical tool to overcome situations where other help may not be immediately available.* 

When Should Crisis Management Be Used?

If you are experiencing any of the following:

  • You are feeling overwhelmed by a task that you are required to complete;
  • You are experiencing intense emotional distress or physical pain that is not subsiding;
  • Your emotions have become too intense and you have become overstimulated or driven to action, and you cannot calm down; and/or
  • You are feeling an impulse to engage in destructive or risky behavior;

It may be time to employ one of the following crisis management skills.

Survival Skills:


S.T.O.P. is an act of stopping an emotional reaction to a situation, then continuing while practicing mindfulness.

    • STOP!! Focus on stilling yourself.  Halt your thoughts and do not move your body.
    • Take a step back. Take a deep breath, step back from the situation.  Do not act on emotion or impulse.
    • Observe the situation.  Notice what is happening inside you, what emotions you are feeling, how you are physically reacting.  Notice your surroundings, how other people in the situation are acting, and what is happening outside of you.
    • Proceed mindfully. Think about what you want to achieve, which actions will help you, and which actions will make the situation worse.


T.I.P.P. is a set of actions that alter your physiological response to a situation and help you break away from a fight-or-flight response.

    • Temperature: hold an icepack in your hands or to your face, or take a hot shower.
    • Intense exercise: use brief, but an intense, physical exercise to redirect heart rate.  Do some jumping jacks, take a quick jog, or try some push-ups or sit-ups.
    • Paced breathing: inhale slowly through the nose, and exhale slowly through the mouth.  Inhale for five seconds, then exhale for seven, making sure that your stomach area rises fully with each breath.  Continue for as long as is necessary.
    • Paired muscle tension: As you inhale, tense your muscles; then release slowly as you exhale. Do this with each muscle group in your body; your shoulders, arms, torso, and legs.  Note the difference in how you feel when the muscles relax.

Dive Response

Similar to T.I.P.P, initiating the dive response slows your heart rate and directs blood flow to your heart and brain.  Immerse your face in cold water for at least 15 seconds.  This is a particularly useful skill to use when experiencing strong impulses or dangerously intense emotion, as it works immediately and does not require complex thinking.

Pros and Cons

Using “pros and cons” lists can help you stay anchored to your goals even when overwhelmed. While you are calm, take some time to write down a list of the impulses you experience when in an elevated emotional state.  Contemplate the pros and cons of acting on your impulses, and write them down. Then, write down the pros and cons of not acting on those impulses.  Keep the list nearby and go over it often.  When a crisis state arises, reference your list and use it to guide your decisions and stay consistent with your goals.


A.C.C.E.P.T.S are distraction techniques that can take your mind out of a cycle of repetitive or racing thoughts, allowing you to return to the situation with a better mindset.

    • Activities: Go on a bike ride, a walk, or a swim.  Read a favorite book or watch a favorite show.  Play a game, write, create art, or solve a puzzle.  Participate in a wholesome activity that you enjoy.
    • Contributing: Volunteer at a shelter or with a charity. Help a friend or a person in need, donate unneeded belongings, clean up litter in a public space you love.
    • Comparisons: Compare current emotions to ones you’ve had in the past, focus on the privileges and positive factors of your life right now.  Compare your situation to a less fortunate one, contemplate, and appreciate your blessings.
    • Emotions: Inspire emotions unrelated to your current situation. Read a tragic book, listen to a song that makes you happy, watch a scary or suspenseful movie.
    • Pushing away: Block out undesired thoughts and emotions– push them away and revisit them when you are in a better state of mind.
    • Thoughts: Focus on something that provokes thought.  Count the number of pens in a cup or the number of red objects in a room.  Do some simple mathematical exercises or solve a puzzle. Recite the lyrics of your favorite song in your mind.
    • Sensations: Seek out an object with an interesting texture– hold a soft blanket, feel the rubber buttons on a TV remote, smooth glass, or a squishy stress ball.  Feel it in your hand and notice the sensations different textures provide.

The use of some or all of these skills can help to redirect your brain from an emotional state to a calm and functional state– rather than acting out of emotion or impulse, you can keep a rational mind and stay true to your goals.  

*if experiencing a medical or psychiatric emergency, always call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.

-adapted from Marsha Linehan’s DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets, Second Edition.


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