Cash flow is an ongoing challenge for business owners who must adapt to financial dips and spikes on a regular basis. Maintaining expenses such as fixed costs and payroll can be extremely stressful, especially for organizations that are just beginning to find their stride.

With proper planning and credit management, small business owners can keep their cash flow healthy. But what happens when plans veer off course, and you're suddenly behind — or in a financial hole?

The scary reality is that one wrong turn can cause a business to fail, which is why it's important for business owners to stay rational, level-headed and forward-looking.

Experience with the Unexpected

Serial entrepreneur Nicole Wright operates a portfolio of businesses, one of which is Food Body ME, a holistic health company she launched in 2010.

"It was my biggest company yet," says Wright. "We did $75,000 in sales on day one and more than $2,000,000 in sales in our first year."

But Wright's first year wasn't easy. There was a time when she thought she would have to shut down her company. A few months into her venture, Food Body ME became the victim of financial theft.

"A celebrity chef that I had hired — someone who I went to graduate school with and trusted — asked for his salary up front," says Wright. "After taking that salary, he disappeared. He had also edited the amount on the check. When I went over previous receipts submitted for reimbursements, I noticed that many of his transactions were not business related."

All of a sudden, Wright found her business in disarray, without the funds to reset her venture's course.

"I'm extremely conservative with my cash," Wright explains. "Before this happened, I had enough cash to support the business for a year. The theft left us broke within 30 days."

While it took Nicole several months to recover financially, it took her three years to fully take command of the emotional experience and regain her confidence as a CEO. She learned the following lessons along the way:

Lesson 1: Take Charge of Your Emotions

An unexpected cash shortage is traumatic. Wright's gut reaction was to immediately become enveloped with her work and operate at a faster pace.

"I was working 20 hours a day in some instances," Wright said. "I felt like I was in crisis. I felt like I couldn't be happy until I fixed the problem — that I wasn't safe. I had to push myself harder than I ever had before."

But being stressed wasn't healthy. She was losing steam and felt scatterbrained. She made the decision to take some time off, unplug, and step away from work with a vacation.

The break empowered her with a clear head, which helped her focus on the business's future and recovery.

Lesson 2: Loop in Your Team

At first, Wright kept the theft a secret, as she did not want to expose her team to the situation. She also felt ashamed.

"It felt like my dirty, shameful secret," Wright says.

Even though Wright kept the problem under wraps, she noticed a change among her team members. They were feeling the same stress that she was experiencing, except her team didn't understand why. In hindsight, Wright wishes she had been more transparent and open with her employees, and worked to keep their spirits high.

"I have learned that people not knowing is worse," says Wright. " You want to enroll your team's help — keep them in the process and planning stages."

Lesson 3: Prioritize the Bigger Picture

Even with this stressful situation, Wright's world didn't end. Her business persevered and grew to great heights, even landing a spot on the cover of Newsweek Japan. But she keeps this experience close.

"To me, finances have always been the foundation," says Wright. "Your expenses should never exceed your cash flow. This was a situation where I went against my instincts and broke my own rule. I should never have done it."

Cash flow is an art as much as it is a science. Careful financial planning and preparing for the rare situation of that plan falling through gives businesses a big-picture view of their future, as well as the agility to survive a sudden cash crisis. When unexpected cash shortages do occur, take a step back, ask for help and make a long-term plan for recovery. There is light at the end of the tunnel — even when you're caught off-guard.