A job teaching English at a high school in Tokyo. Excellent pay — and plenty of time to finish my novel. Although the school year didn’t start until September, I’d gone early to improve my Japanese. I met some new friends. We went out to bars and sang karaoke until three in the morning. Moving to Japan had always been my dream, and it was finally here. The only problem? This was February of 2011. On March 11th, a 9.0 earthquake would rock the Pacific coast.

As a Floridian, I was somewhat used to natural disasters, though admittedly never on this scale. In 2004, four hurricanes struck back-to-back, knocking out our power for weeks. My mom had taught me how to deal with emergencies, and we’d weathered past hurricanes with stocks of food and water and card games by candlelight. But the tsunami of 2011 was no ordinary disaster. It caused a level 7 meltdown at three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex.

The coronavirus is a different kind of disaster. It’s a biological tsunami that has overwhelmed the entire world. Like many, I’ve been at home for weeks, stocking up on supplies, reading the news, and waiting for an indication of what comes next. In conversations with my friends, I realized that my experience both in Florida and in Japan had taught me a few strategies for coping with a sudden crisis and making good decisions. Those I share with you now.

The Undertow Mindset

Growing up, whenever I went to the beach, my mom always warned us about the undertow. It’s an ocean current that can come in suddenly, invisibly. If you do nothing, the undertow can sweep you far out to sea. But when you start to feel yourself being pulled, you’re not supposed to swim directly to shore, either. The undertow is too strong, and you’ll only exhaust yourself — and potentially drown. Instead, my mom taught us to swim to the side before heading back to shore.

In the midst of the 2011 Fukushima meltdown, the undertow began to pull my mind out to sea. My dream was in danger — and yet everyone back home was saying that I should pack up and leave it all behind. At first I resisted. I began to search for information that didn’t disrupt my plans. I resisted unfriendly news and warnings from friends and family, insisting that the nuclear situation was being handled. The situation would blow over in a few months. 

Of course, it didn’t. Far from it. But at the time, I couldn’t see that this was a disaster far greater than I could have imagined. In the end, I made what was for me the right decision. I left the job and returned home. But making decisions during a disaster is like fighting the undertow. So, for what it’s worth, here are some coping mechanisms and strategies that helped me. Maybe one or two will be helpful to you as well.

How to get through a Disaster

Ask for Help, Help Others

March 11th, 2011 was unlike anything I’d experienced before. I can still remember when it happened. I was on the fourth floor of a classroom, tutoring an old man. Mid-lesson, he stood up and said, “Something bad. Listen.” A minute later, I felt the first aftershock. At the station, all the trains had shut down, and I was an hour from where I was staying. I barely spoke Japanese, and read even less. Fortunately, some teenagers helped me figure out how to use a pay phone to contact a friend, and I got picked up a few hours later. There are people in need right now who you might be able to help. And as importantly, don’t hesitate to ask for help.

Talk to Friends and Family

Talk with your friends and family. They know you best, and they can help you work through conflicting thoughts on your future versus your immediate safety. In the end, my mom didn’t talk me out of staying in Japan, but she patiently chatted with me until I was able to come to the conclusion on my own. At the end of the day, your friends and family want what’s best for you. If the undertow mindset grabs you, chances are your friends and family can help you swim to the side, instead of fighting the current — or doing nothing and being swept out to sea.

Give your Mind a Break

Read the news, but don’t read it every second. In 2011, I remember scanning for radiation levels several times a day, attempting to discern whether I should stay in Japan or go. I became a “nuclear fission expert,” able to discuss radiation levels at length. Obsessively reading the news isn’t the same as being informed, and you’ve got to give your mind a break. So I bought a flight to Taiwan for a week, just to get out of Japan, planning to reassess the situation once I got back. That week helped my thoughts to settle, and I made better decisions as a result. So pick up a video game. Or a book. Dust off those playing cards. Disasters can overwhelm your mind, and you’re going to need it for awhile.

Write in a Journal, and Review

In the aftermath of 2011, I wrote in a journal daily. It helped me not only to collect my thoughts, but to track how my perspective was changing by the day. Thoughts that seemed perfectly rational seemed absolutely absurd a week later. It’s hard to know what to do in a crisis. Writing down how you feel can help you sort out how you’re processing information and emotion, and how one is impacting the other. Besides, a daily journal will bring you one step further towards that goal of writing a dystopian thriller.

Dark Humor for Dark Times

To some, that last sentence might come across as callow, but humor has a role in sustaining us during crisis. For example, here’s a funny story. After I left Japan, the girl I was dating broke up with me. I had no money, so I lived with my parents. To review. Broke. Broken up with. Living with parents. I won’t tell you my age. Fine. It was 30. That said, my career pivot to video games was a result of taking the moment to reassess my career goals. Six months later, I met the woman of my dreams. We got married — but delayed our honeymoon because I was in the midst of working on Borderlands 3, a dystopian dark comedy. Guess when my wife and I scheduled our honeymoon to Japan. March 2020. Funny, right?

The Aftermath

In my experience, disasters impact you long after the initial crash. And unfortunately, it seems we’re just at the beginning of this crisis. The Coronavirus is going to test our resolve as an interconnected, global society. But it’s also going to test our humanity — how we treat each other, watch out for each other, care for each other. My hope is that this becomes a wake-up call for all of us. What happens in one part of the world affects the other. We can no longer afford short-term bandages to global problems. So watch out for the undertow mindset — and for each other.