SIP 10.7 Dealing with ‘Crisis Mode’

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Recently, the SIPsquad has been feeling like we’re in “crisis mode,” and we know others feel the same. Faculty, staff and students seem stressed out in general and anxious about the future. Pressures at work, increased urgency around deadlines and the fielding of multiple requests from superiors are creating a burdensome atmosphere at work. Global climate change, political chaos, mass violence and other big-picture concerns weigh on all of us. Families and homes feel more like onerous responsibilities than joyful, life-affirming sources of strength. How can we confront these pressures in order to work and live well?

Take a SIP of this: Dealing with Crisis Mode

The SIPsquad contacted Emily Goldberg, LCSW, middle-school counselor at Stanley British Primary School and Gail Bruce-Sanford, Ph.D., director of the MSU Denver Counseling Center, to ask about the perceptions and realities of crisis mode. Based on our own experiences of working in crisis mode, we threw in our own two cents to round out the conversation.

Q: What are the signs of crisis mode, and how can we recognize them in our students, colleagues and selves? How does crisis mode affect our energy or physical health?

Goldberg: The stress of a perceived crisis throws our bodies into “fight-flight-freeze” mode. Excess amounts of adrenaline are released into our system, and the stress hormone cortisol is activated. Early humans experienced this response only sporadically – but when it happens to us every single day, it takes its toll. Our bodies were not built for this.

The Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Publishing blog said this regarding the recurrence of reaction to stress: “Over time, repeated activation of the stress response takes a toll on the body. Research suggests that chronic stress contributes to high blood pressure, promotes the formation of artery-clogging deposits and causes brain changes that may contribute to anxiety, depression and addiction. More preliminary research suggests that chronic stress may also contribute to obesity, both through direct mechanisms (causing people to eat more) or indirectly (decreasing sleep and exercise).”

Bruce-Sanford: Metro faculty are so dedicated, but they are often underpaid, living in an overly expensive city and often sharing their students’ burdens while trying to manage their own. In particular, the management of this vicarious trauma can produce chronic pain, chronic fatigue, migraines, stomach issues and other physical symptoms that we should be watching for.

SIPsquad: When I’m in crisis mode, I panic! I feel like everything is urgent and I’m unable to prioritize. I feel like I’m on a hamster wheel that won’t stop. I am constantly moving but not getting anywhere, and nothing actually gets done. It makes me tired, but ironically it makes it hard for me to actually sleep. I’m sure that people around me can sense this stress.

I know I’m in crisis mode when I abandon my planner because I’m simply working on the next thing due and when I start losing stuff and missing meetings.

I know I am in crisis mode when I stop caring. I stop caring about the quality of my work; I stop caring about my students. I am just going through the motions of getting things done, just to get them done and off my list, and I don’t care how I do it.

Q: Why are things so ramped up these days? It seems like we didn’t live in constant crisis mode in the past.

Bruce-Sanford: More demands and expectations are placed on us today, and they arrive more quickly due to email communication. We are bombarded with instant requests and instant expectations. The nature of our work creates increased complexities in our roles – we are attending to many things simultaneously (although the ability to multitask well is questionable for anyone).

Goldberg: Student issues are increasingly complex now too. Three decades ago, a university student was just a student and that was their main role. For married students, their spouses took care of all the house stuff, and the students could participate fully in school. But now, attention is divided and people have conflicting interests that make focusing on school difficult.

We can’t point to one simple reason why the pace of life is now heightened, but we know for sure that technology bears some blame. On the one hand, technology is often a distraction that diminishes our productivity. But on the other, technology helps to create a dialogue that suggests, “I’m so great because I work 65 hours per week and I’m always available and connected, and this has resulted in a big car and a huge house, so I’m doing it right.” Furthermore, technology has also inspired a curated FOMO (fear of missing out) – constant notifications around news and our friends’ “amazing” lives make us feel like we need to “keep up,” and this is a stressor.

Q: When we see friends or colleagues in crisis mode, how can we help?

Bruce-Sanford: If you know someone who appears to be in crisis mode, you might gently say to them, “Your mood seems a bit different, you have been a bit snappy, and maybe you don’t realize it, and I’m concerned about you. Are you doing OK?”

SIPsquad: I think instead of piling on about how stressed out we are, we might remind them to practice self-care, which might, in turn, motivate us to do it.

Q: What proactive steps can we take to build avoidance of crisis mode into our syllabi?


    • Incorporate some of the mindfulness practices into your syllabus.
    • Asking for help is really a skill – set aside some time to teach your students how to do this.


    • Have a humane late-work policy (like the late tickets we’ve written about in SIP 1.X).
    • Practice pedagogies such as “slow teaching” that build mindfulness and the appreciation of being present into the practices of teaching and learning. Read about how to adopt this pedagogy in SIP 8.15, Slow Teaching.
    • Here are a few other SIPs on incorporating mindfulness into your pedagogy.
    • Avoid last-minute changes to your syllabus or to assignment guidelines, as this may produce anxiety or the feeling of high expectations with shifting targets.

Q: What self-care steps can we take to ensure that crisis mode doesn’t get the best of us if the crisis mode itself is pretty unavoidable?

Goldberg: Self-care is a huge step toward prevention. When the community writ large engages in self-care, then everyone does better and the students are better. Here are a couple of ideas:

    • Meditation and mindfulness take practice and discipline, but they are ways to reconfigure the pathways of the brain that have been damaged by stress.
    • When people have a sense of belonging, they are less likely to be harmed by the stressors discussed above. We must place more emphasis on the development of humanity and human connection.
    • Don’t shame people for asking for help, and try to avoid self-shaming when you ask for help.
    • Set firm limits and boundaries. That’s how we maintain the balance in our schedules. It empowers us to have more control in our lives.
    • Disconnect from technology!!


    • Always try to keep a balanced perspective.
    • Look at your schedule and ensure that you are not overscheduling. Try to delegate more. Have others share in some of the workload more often.
    • Have fun! Play; engage in a fun activity; do things that are light. Give yourself permission to balance out the stress with things that you enjoy.
    • Feel good about saying, “No, I can’t at this time, but I can later,” so you aren’t always saying yes to everything that comes to you, because you will get overscheduled.
    • It may go without saying, but get good sleep and eat healthy foods!


    • Practice priority-setting regularly.
    • Contact someone else for a reality check about whether something that appears urgent really is.

Q: What can we do to contribute to culture change around crisis mode, even if we don’t supervise other faculty or staff?

Goldberg: Parents need to model for kids; faculty need to model for students. It doesn’t matter if you are at the “top of the food chain” – you have the power to model the behavior that will create positive change.

SIPsquad: Don’t do the academic-martyr thing (bragging about long hours, lack of sleep, etc.). Support others who cut back or say no instead of making them feel bad. Stop apologizing for practicing self-care or taking a few days to answer a nonurgent email because that implies that there is something wrong with doing these things.

Still thirsty? Take another SIP of this: dealing with crisis mode

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