As a species, we excel at managing emergencies. From natural disasters such as catastrophic earthquakes, to man-made tragedies such as acts of terrorism, to rapidly evolving global-scale deadly events such as pandemics, humanity has shown time and time again that we can band together, strategise and deploy resources to fight against acute emergencies.
From a young age, we learn how to approach urgent issues, such as calling for emergency services, putting out fires, dealing with wounds et cetera. Much of growing up is learning how to deal with various kinds of emergencies: how to organise and balance your finances when you are made redundant, how to console a friend when they are struck with grief, how to fix a car when it breaks down, how to get the internet working again…
But when it comes to “chronic emergencies”, we become stumped. These are urgent, pressing issues – from personal to global scales – that stay for long periods of time or come in waves, rather than as a single event..
Let us consider some examples of how humanity struggles with chronic issues compared to acute ones.
When a hurricane or wildfire strikes, we respond rapidly to provide relief and supplies to help those in need. But when it comes to climate change, we have difficulty coordinating our efforts or even agreeing what the problems are.
When you have acute pain such as a broken bone or a kidney infection, doctors and nurses will provide effective pain relief and treatments to make you better. But when it comes to chronic conditions and chronic pain, you will have to navigate frustrating labyrinths of medication regimens and bouncing from system to system with suboptimal control of symptoms.
Most of us will be adept at dealing with acute stresses in a relationship such as a fight involving a specific event or when our partner has a bad day at work or is faced with disappointment. However, we struggle to deal with chronic issues such as when our partner does not get along with our family or they are battling through serious mental health issues.
The list goes on and on and most readers would be able to think of specific examples from their own lives.
There are many reasons as to why we are better at managing acute emergencies over chronic ones.
Chronic emergencies tend to be more complex with various layers and factors. Because they are long-term problems, they require long-term solutions with sustained effort and careful planning. Due to the chronicity of the problem, people start to lose interest in fighting the problem, or simply become exhausted and exasperated, leading them to give up or accepting it as a new norm.
So what can we do about this? Obviously the solution isn’t to give up on chronic emergencies at first sight. Just as we strive in life to be better and better at addressing acute emergencies, so should we learn to better manage chronic emergencies.
As highlighted above, chronic emergencies are inherently different types of problems that demand a different approach.
The first step is recognising that there is a chronic emergency. Often, chronic emergencies appear as a string of acute situations, so we fight and fight until we burnout. Formally declaring an issue as a chronic emergency helps you stop and rethink your approach. We must also accept that there are no easy or quick fixes for most chronic problems. They take time and effort, with many ups and downs.
To tackle a long-term problem, we need a long-term plan. It is easy to get distracted dealing with individual fires, while failing to see that the entire forest is burning down. Instead of treating each facet of the emergency individually, we can come up with standardised approaches and protocols to automatically respond to recurrent issues, while using our energy and resources to devise a more sustainable solution, treating the root causes.
An example is how a student who comes up with long-term study plans and dedicates time for assignments over a long period of time does much better academically compared to the average student who frantically pulls an all-nighter every time an assignment is due.
Lastly, it is important to recognise that this will be a hike, rather than a sprint. You cannot use maximum effort and burn the candle at both ends right from the start, only to burnout and be overwhelmed by the problem. Instead, pace things out, plan breaks, set realistic, achievable and incremental goals rather than attempting to end the solution.
In chronic emergencies (and life in general), consistent growth and recovery is far more valuable than absolute targets.
Be kind to yourself and others involved when there are failures or unexpected disappointments, because you will have to continuously adapt, learn and be better to ultimately overcome the challenge.
These points are particularly relevant to personal chronic emergencies and long-term hardships such as bad economies, break-ups, grief and mental health conditions.
Life will always be full of emergencies – acute and chronic – so we need to learn to be proactive and deal with them effectively, rather than being reactive and lamenting the awkwardness of life.
Now think about your present life: what “acute” stresses and disruptions are you facing that might actually be a chronic emergency in disguise?