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Blog Short #105: 4 Coping Strategies for Unexpected Stress

Photo by fizkes, Courtesy of iStock Photo

A friend recently asked me, “How should I deal with stressful situations that arise unexpectedly?”

That’s a great question and something everyone struggles with. I’ve written on this subject before (see ), but I’m expanding on it today. I’ve got four strategies I use myself and suggest to clients when they’re faced with surprises that catch them off guard and cause stress.

Before we start, let me go through the psychological obstacles that get in the way, and then I’ll give you the strategies to get around those.

Two Obstacles

The two psychological obstacles that get in the way are resistance and rigidity.


When something comes out of the blue, several things happen:

  1. First, your current plan, schedule, or what you’re doing at the moment is interrupted. Usually abruptly.
  2. Secondly, you’re forced to shift your attention to the interruption. You can’t avoid it.
  3. Third, you resist it. We all do. Some people are better at it and can shift without getting upset or reactive, but most have a stronger emotional reaction. It depends partly on how significant the interruption is and how difficult it will be to resolve. A simple, quick interruption that takes you ten minutes to fix isn’t too much of a problem. Something that will take up the rest of the day or longer creates stronger resistance.

Either way, resistance is the natural first reaction, and it’s felt emotionally.

You might be mildly or intensely reactive, depending on the situation. You could get angry, anxious, overwhelmed, paralyzed, or just irritated and annoyed. If the issue is an emergency, you might also feel fear.

Now for the second obstacle.

Being Rigid

If your natural temperament is “go with the flow,” you’re less likely to react to a sudden change because it’s easier for you to switch gears without much notice. Transitions aren’t difficult for you.

But if you like things organized and well-planned and get invested in your schedule, you probably react more significantly to sudden changes that require you to pivot. You might get more irritated and need time to adjust. And even though you do make the shift and do what’s needed, you probably don’t do it quickly. You might complain your way through it.

If you’re very rigid, these situations make you angry or overwhelm you and leave you quite anxious. You need additional time to adjust. Your resistance is substantial.

Now let’s look at the coping strategies you can use to reduce both resistance and rigidity.

Strategy #1: The 5-Minute Rant

This one is good if you’re someone who needs to express your emotional reactions before you can make a transition. Give yourself five minutes to complain out loud and verbalize how you’re feeling. Allow yourself to say anything that comes to mind. No censoring.

There’s nothing wrong with doing this. By acknowledging how irritated you are, you’ll get some breathing room and be able to lower your resistance.

The trick is to limit how long you do it so it doesn’t get out of hand. Excessive ranting can inflame your emotions and make it hard for you to let go of them. By timing your rant, you give it some play, but not too much.

When you’ve finished, do one round of square breathing. Exhale completely to a count of four, inhale slowly to a count of four, hold it four counts, and exhale again to a count of four. Do this as many times as you like to calm yourself down. Now go to the next strategy.

Strategy #2: Channel Your Self-Talk

The next step is to use your thinking brain to help you shift your focus from where you were to where you need to go. To do this, you can create some statements to say to yourself that will facilitate this shift. Here are some examples:

“I can handle this situation. Take a deep breath. It’s not the end of the world. I can shift my day around and make it happen.”

“I don’t need to get crazy here. I’m fully capable of handling this.”

“Things happen. I can flow with it.”

The purpose of this strategy is to let go of your resistance and make a shift. Self-talk is an effective way to accomplish this.

Strategy #3: Be Deliberate

Once you’ve made that transition and you’re focused on the situation you have in front of you, it’s time to take action.

You may need to plan and prioritize what needs to be done before starting. It depends on what the situation is. It may not require planning if it’s just an undesired interruption you can easily take care of. But if it’s more involved, take a moment to think it through and get help if needed. Get your ducks in a row.

The key to this strategy is to be very deliberate with your actions. That means doing what you need to do slowly with full focus.

That sounds counterintuitive because most of us start moving faster when something stressful occurs, but doing things slower actually gets you to the finish line faster.

Get granular about it. Watch yourself as you do things. If you dropped your briefcase in the driveway before getting in your car and papers are everywhere, pick them up slowly and watch your hands as you do it. Stack them one at a time and put them back in your briefcase gradually until you’re finished and satisfied, and then close it quietly.

When you focus this way on each movement or motion, you curtail your mind from spinning out and anxiously obsessing.

Being slow and deliberate calms both your emotions and your body. It slows your breathing, reduces your heartbeat, and relaxes your muscles.

Strategy #4: Play Baseball

This strategy is more global. It’s not just a step but a way of looking at situations in general. See yourself on the baseball field playing any position you like. You can try several in your mind. As you get into position, you’ll notice your knees are slightly bent, you’re looking ahead, and ready to field the ball wherever it goes. You’re focused and flexible at the same time.

Focused and flexible. That’s the way you want to be day to day. You can attend with concentration to what you have planned and scheduled, but you’re also flexible and aware that anything could interrupt you and require a pivot on your part.

If you tend to be more rigid and need to know how things will be ahead, you can do your best to counteract surprises by planning for them, but even then, random things will happen. It’s better to practice getting good at fielding the unexpected.

Challenge yourself to use these strategies the next time something crops up and the next time after that. See it as a skill you need to learn and get good at it. Reward yourself when you do it well.

When you do that, you’ll find you sidestep that ugly resistance that brings on the rant, and you won’t even need to rant. You can be organized, scheduled, and persistent in getting things done well and be flexible at the same time. Make it a partnership, and life will be easier. The mantra I use when I need to shift is “Play ball!” Try it out!

That’s all for today!

Have a great week!

All my best,


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