Deer in target
Illustration: Sean McCabe
The military has given the English language two words that brilliantly articulate different types of crises: The first is snafu, an acronym for "situation normal, all f***ed up." The second is fubar, which stands for "f***ed up beyond all recognition." As we travel the bumpy road of life, we must prepare to deal with both. Fubar situations are huge disasters, the kind that come with an implicit "get out of normal obligations free" card and often require a rethinking of where your future is headed. Smaller snafu crises—the broken toe, the stolen wallet, the babysitter quitting on short notice—can be incredibly disruptive, but usually they're not life changing; they're more likely month changing or 10-weeks-of-Vicodin disruptive. But a short-term crisis is still a crisis, so here's how to weather your next snafu.

Go Ahead and Freak Out

One fine day in 2006, a wild deer wandered into a Target store in West Des Moines. He skidded around like Bambi on ice for 20 minutes, until employees herded him through the automatic doors to freedom. On surveillance videos, the deer is wearing an expression I've seen on many human faces during minor crises—a look that says, "I feel fine, but what the...?"

I mention this because there's one way in which deer handle crises better than humans—at least according to Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma author Peter Levine, PhD, who holds two doctorates, one in psychology, one in medical and biological physics. Early in his research, Levine noticed that when animals are traumatized—even a little bit—they react by trembling, running, kicking, and thrashing around, which is what that deer did. Meanwhile, human Target shoppers reacted with stiffness and consternation, because we generally try to subdue physical "emergency" reactions.

After falling down stairs or arguing with a co-worker, we make every effort to keep our eyes, voices, and hands steady, determined to show through our physical motionlessness that we're in complete control of our bodies, moods, and lives (no matter how many Xanax this requires).

Levine noted that people who have physical emergency reactions often cope better with crisis, and show fewer symptoms of trauma afterward, than people who hold still. Stress compels action; in snafu situations, Mother Nature gives just one instruction to all her children, and that instruction is, "Move!" When the unexpected strikes, find a private space and let your body do whatever it wants. Heave, kick, shake your head like a wet cat. Then let that energy flow into constructive action, whether it's contesting a credit card charge, yanking cactus spines out of your child, or slapping duct tape on a broken pipe.

I got a chance to test this advice when one of my car tires blew out. After regaining control of the fishtailing vehicle, then coaxing it over to the freeway shoulder, I went a little crazy, shuddering and shouting incoherently for about 10 seconds. Sure enough, this seemed to open up a channel to calm. Feeling very alert, I got out and changed that tire with my own profoundly nonmechanical hands. I drove away feeling so empowered, so conscious of life's fragility, that even the disruption of my schedule hardly bothered me. I do believe letting myself have those initial 10 seconds of physical freak-out cleared my mind and body for positive action. Thank you, Dr. Levine.

Next: How to let go of your expectations