Seven Steps in Working Through Distressful Situations

Seven Steps in Working Through Distressful Situations

Let’s face it. Life is hard. We all encounter seasons of distress. But very few people are taught how to deal with that distress. At least I wasn’t…. It’s not like they go over that in school. Here’s what I’ve learned over the years.

Disclaimer: I am not a mental health care professional. For any medical advice, please contact a licensed professional. Also, for emergency situations involving a crime or the potential for physical harm, call 9-1-1.

1. Start by re-orienting yourself

When something distressing occurs, it’s easy to feel trapped within the downward spiral of negative thoughts, especially if you struggle with anxiety. Perhaps there was a conflict at work and you can’t stop thinking about what that co-worker said, or the single distressing word in that email you read. In your mind, you imagine a hundred versions about what they meant. And when you can’t think of any more versions, you start recycling through previous ones. I experience terrible racing thoughts like this and they can last for days.

So do something to re-orient yourself. It’s kind of like shocking yourself out of the situation that you feel stuck in. For example:

  • Splash some cold water on your face. This can help decrease the rise in temperature you’re experiencing from the fight or flight syndrome.
  • Go outdoors. Even if it’s just for a couple of minutes, changing your environment can really help you get outside of the situation. Your mind will be distracted by the new stimuli coming in through all five senses. The sunshine. The sound of birds (or cars, depending on where you’re at). The smells. All of these things can help pull you out of the downward spiral.

2. Distract yourself

Take some time to get your mind off of the situation. Of course, when a distressful situation needs attention, seeking distraction sounds counter intuitive. However, science shows that, while we’re not consciously thinking about a problem, our subconscious mind is still working toward a solution. In fact, science states that we need this period of subconscious thought, in order to come to the best resolution. Sound crazy? Think about the phrase, “Sleep on it.” 

Also, distracting yourself gives your mind time to calm down until it can return to homeostasis. When you’re in the midst of a crisis, your body and brain move into fight or flight mode. It’s an increase in the sympathetic nervous system. Your brain makes quick decisions, ones that are not always the best decisions. You owe it to the situation to get yourself calmed down, so that you can think clearly again.

Try some of these ways to distract yourself:

  • Watch a funny TV show, like Parks and Rec.
  • Clean your room or work space.
  • Listen to some music.
  • Work on a Sudoku puzzle.
  • Read a book.
  • Play tennis.

Or anything that might distract you for a little bit.

3. Practice self-soothing behaviors

This is similar to the previous step. It involves calming and grounding ourselves, in preparation for dealing with the problem at hand.

When I’m too overwhelmed by a situation, the last thing I want to do is address it. I’d rather run in the opposite direction. In fact, I get really good at distracting myself with Netflix! However, I can’t do that forever. Being an adult, at some point, I have to address things. But before I can address things, I need to feel safe in doing so. Self-soothing behaviors are my warm-up for moving back into the situation.

For me, self-soothing behaviors could look like a few different things.

  • I take a walk in the park, because there are trees and water, which remind me of growing up in beautiful, peaceful New England.
  • Exercise causes endorphins to flow through your system.
  • I also love staring up at the night sky, thinking about the stars and planets, different constellations, the Milky Way. There’s a sense of wonder that comes from that. I realize how small I am compared to the entire universe, and it gives me deeper perspective.
  • For some people, it might be swimming or a hot bath.
  • Getting a massage.
  • Listening to worship music.
  • Hanging out with your best friend.

It could be anything that creates a pleasant emotion within you and helps you relax. You’ll need these pleasant emotions to groud you as you head back into dealing with the situation.

4. Take some time for prayer and consideration

Once you’ve calmed down a bit, you can take your emotions and the situation to God. Remember that He loves you and He has some creative solution for the challenges you face. That doesn’t mean the challenges will necessarily go away. Sometimes they don’t. But it does mean He has something in mind to help you get through it.

There is also a greater sense of peace knowing that you have a constant ally, One who is much stronger than you. And He works all things out for good. That doesn’t mean that everything that happens to us is good. It just means that, whatever happens to us, He can bring something good out of it, whether it’s a lesson we learned, a new career path, new friendships, or even just simply the ability to help others in similar situations.

Pray for things such as: peace, wisdom on how to approach the situation, reconciliation between the individuals involved, perhaps physical healing (miracles can happen!), perseverance, and anything else that comes to mind. Above all, ask for clarity on how best to move forward in a way that honors God and loves people well.

5. Recognize any unhealthy / unrealistic thinking traps

Sometimes when a situation distresses us, it’s because we are practicing unhealthy thinking habits. Other times, such as in interpersonal conflict, it’s often due to a simple miscommunication.

Common thinking traps:

  • All or nothing thinking (for example, people either fully love you or fully hate you)
  • Catastrophic thinking
  • The Fundamental Attribution Error
  • Mind reading (assuming you know what others are thinking)
  • Using a negative brain filter (filtering out any positive evidence and honing in on all the negative evidence)

To learn more, check out this website on thinking traps.

6. Take action, but remember the steps above and repeat them as often as necessary

I find that, when facing a distressing situation, I may have to pass through the above steps multiple times. That’s ok. Everyone is different and stressors will vary greatly. Part of building resilience is not giving up. If you get to step five, but you’re still utterly overwhelmed, you might not be ready to address the situation yet. I’ll say it again: that’s ok! Especially when we’re talking about situations of abuse or other trauma. Oh and on that note, please be safe…. That brings me to my final step, number 7 below.

7. Recognize that it’s ok to seek help

If you are the victim of any type of abuse, please seek help. The phone number for the National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799-7233. Call them if you are in a situation where you fear physical violence from a loved one. In other cases of physical violence or actual emergencies, call 9-1-1.

For other situations, if you are really struggling, you may benefit from talking to a licensed professional counselor or psychologist, and that’s totally ok! It doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you, nor does it make you weak. If this helps, just think of them as a consultant who can help you brainstorm healthy, constructive solutions to the problems you face. I’ve seen a counselor multiple times in two separate situations, and, both times, I found it incredibly beneficial!

Anyway, I hope the above steps help. They are just a starting place and take practice, but they’ve definitely helped me on many occasions!

What about you?

What helps you get through stressful situations? I’d love to hear about your coping methods, so please leave a comment below!

8 thoughts on “Seven Steps in Working Through Distressful Situations

  1. Great tips! #2 is my go-to. If it’s night and I’m already in bed I try to read on my Kindle or I put earphones in and listen to a podcast. Anything to distract me and focus my racing brain!

  2. Hi. Nice article. I’m an expat living in South Korea, so I experience a lot of stressful situations in both my work and living environment. Your tips are very helpful. Thanks

    1. Wow, South Korea, that’s cool! I lived overseas in Peru for about half a year, and you’re right, it can definitely be stressful. I’m glad this post was useful for you. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Love this. Despite my own current situation being self-inflicted (aka work related), this advice is spot on and is exactly what I need to follow to get through the next month or so. Great article, thanks!

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