When a setback happens suddenly, the shock can reverberate in our thoughts and feelings for extended periods of time. The amount of time it takes to recover corresponds to the degree of loss the setback represents. Loss taps into very deep structures in the brain, and if we do not employ consciousness to navigate the emotional landscape of our loss, it can easily morph into a prolonged melodrama which we act out unconsciously.
How can you cope when your reactions to a setback are chaotic and intense?
Recognize what is happening in your brain. The brain’s fight-or-flight response is designed to keep you from thinking straight, so don’t let it dictate your words and actions. The brain is also a story-teller who loves to embellish the tale with each telling. So, stick with the facts. Just the facts! Refrain from going into what-if scenarios of how close a call it was, or dwelling on what might have been, if only… What occurred is what happened, and nothing your Mind makes up about it is real.
Bring yourself back to the present moment. The events leading up to a big setback often play like a movie inside our heads. When you catch yourself reliving the events or trying to “rewrite the script” of what happened, bring yourself back to the present moment by breathing deeply. Notice what is happening right now: the chair in which you are sitting, whether or not it is day or night, the sounds you are hearing, etc. You cannot sense these things in any other moment than the one in which you find yourself, but also realize that, at least initially, you might have to do this exercise every few minutes until your emotions calm down.
Delay taking action. Many of us medicate our emotions through action. If we don’t take a breath and try to restore calm before we act, we can expend a lot of energy doing things that are not really constructive and which might even be counterproductive. If you need to evaluate the action you’re contemplating, ask a trusted friend who has no investment in the outcome whether or not it makes sense to take the action you want to take. On the other hand, if you are paralyzed when you know you need to act, breathe your way through it and do the best you can.
Wait out your emotional wave before making any big decisions. After a big setback, the emotional wave can have the force of a tsunami, and its power to distort your reality can be very great indeed. Wait, wait, wait and wait even longer. The dilemmas created by turbulent emotions usually resolve themselves into emotional clarity with the passage of time. Since most of the things you think when you are emotional are not altogether true, wait until your emotional wave has subsided, and don’t fall into the trap of believing that getting the decision behind you will solve anything, especially if that decision is made prematurely.
Watch for new opportunities. When we undergo a setback, opportunities emerge that didn’t exist before the setback occurred. Although we may be unable to see them right away, changing conditions often reveal choices and resources that weren’t obvious under other circumstances. Without making up a fantasy or going into denial, it’s important to have faith that we will eventually be able to change difficult things for the better with time, patience and the wisdom we always gain from meeting our challenges with willingness.
Keep in in mind that big setbacks usually represent our greatest opportunities for transformation. The key to actualizing these opportunities is simple but not easy: be willing to embrace the uncertainties that setbacks invariably magnify. Bottom line: come back to the now-moment, stay here, and wait until your clarity and calm are restored. Then, with a clear head, you can decide what, if anything, to do.
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