How to Overcome Life's Toughest Situations

by Locke Hughes for SHAPE.com

How to overcome any tough situationHow to overcome any tough situation

"Get over it." The trite advice seems easy, but it's a struggle to put situations such as a brutal breakup, a backstabbing friend, or the loss of a loved one in the past. "When something has caused you real emotional pain, it can be extremely hard to move on," says Rachel Sussman, a relationship expert and author of The Breakup Bible. "These events can trigger larger psychological issues, which can take a long time to reconcile."

Tough as it can be to work through things, it's worth it, for both your mental and physical health. "Holding on to negative emotions leads to chronic stress and depression, which studies have linked to weight gain, an increased risk of heart disease, and other serious health problems," says Cynthia Ackrill, M.D., a physician specializing in neuroscience and stress management.

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So take a deep breath and get ready to let go of your emotional baggage. While overcoming a difficulty is a unique process and varies for everyone, these strategies can turn any bump in the road into an opportunity to grow.

1. Let emotions reign: The first few days after a devastating event are overpowering physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, Ackrill says, and we all react differently. Give yourself time to scream, wail, curl up in fetal position, and feel however you do without judgment. One caveat: If after a couple weeks you're still continuing to despair, feel utterly hopeless, or are considering suicide, it's time to seek professional psychological help.

2. Nurture yourself: When dealing with a stressful situation, it's extremely important to take care of yourself and make sleep, healthy eating, and exercise a priority. "Those things are going to give you the brainpower to think well and work through the situation," Ackrill says, adding that working out will help relieve anxious energy and release feel-good endorphins. A little self-compassion is necessary too. "Many people tend to blame themselves for unfortunate events, exacerbating guilt and other negative emotions," Sussman says. While you should take responsibility for your actions, remember that you weren't the only player in the situation. Try not to think, "I should have done better," but instead tell yourself, "I did the best I could."

3. Realize your mind is playing games: "Right after a jolt, your brain plays all kinds of tricks on you and can make you feel like you can undo what happened," Ackrill says. Before you call your ex to reconcile and reunite or email the job recruiter to convince her that she made a mistake not hiring you, take a mental pause and recognize that your mind is spinning these unrealistic thoughts. It may help to write them down to reread hours later. "Seeing your thoughts on paper forces you to look at what your brain is telling you so you can ask if those thoughts are really true or if it's just your emotions speaking," Ackrill explains. Question what purpose the thoughts serve: to undo the event or to make progress through it?

4. Avoid exaggerations: In order to move past a difficult situation, you first need to understand what's truly weighing you down. "Many times the trigger to emotional upheaval isn't the event itself-it's the fear that the event caused you to have, such as, 'Am I enough?' or 'Am I worthy of love?'" Ackrill says. Since our brains are wired to be sensitive to threats for survival reasons, our minds tend toward negativity. So when we're upset, it's very easy to catastrophize our worries: "I lost a job" can easily become "I'm never going to work again," while a divorce can cause you to think, "No one will ever love me again."

Before you dive into a gallon of mocha fudge ice cream, know that your brain is jumping to exaggerations and ask yourself: Who do I want to be in this situation, the victim or the person who takes it with grace and seeks growth? Also recall past devastations that you've survived and think how you can apply the skills learned then to succeed in this situation as well.

5. Learn from the past: When you're upset about losing something, whether it's a job, friendship, or even a dream apartment, ask yourself: What kind of expectations did I have coming in? "Our brain comes up with extremely optimistic stories about situations," Ackrill says. But this thinking is unrealistic and unfair to you and the other person. To help yourself be better prepared in the future, examine what you truly need out of a relationship, career, or friendship, and adjust your expectations. "Think of past difficulties as research," Ackrill recommends. "Eventually you'll be able to look back and recognize what you learned from that relationship or that bad boss."

Maybe you need to develop some skills, whether it's learning how to communicate better or mastering a new computer program, so you can feel more empowered next time.

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6. Think positively: It may sound contrived, but in any difficult situation, don't forget that you'll get through this eventually. "If you feel that things will improve over time, it will help you through the worst moments," Sussman says. If your fiancé cheated, know that you will pair up with an honest, loving man again. Or if you were laid off, you will acquire another rewarding job. Bottom line: Look brightly to the future, whatever your current circumstance.

7. Give it time:
When it comes to the big stuff-diagnosis of an illness, death of a family member, car accident-there is absolutely no one-size-fits-all recommendation, Sussman says. Two things that always help, however, are social support and time. You may prefer to be alone at first, and go ahead and enjoy your "me time," just be sure you eventually let friends and family members give their love. "Being alone for a long period of time is not healthy, and social connection helps you feel better in the end," Ackrill says.
Then be patient. "Like a cut or scrape, an emotional wound will eventually heal over time," she says.

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