Here’s Science’s Best Advice For Keeping Your Cool When Life Throws A Setback Your Way


Setbacks happen to everyone, but how you deal with them is a major component to mastering this whole being-a-human thing. I mean, let’s face it — setbacks happen all the time, and it’s not unusual to feel angry or otherwise down when they do. Knowing how to respond to setbacks without losing your cool is key to figuring out your next steps like a boss. Whether you fight with your partner, get passed over for a job promotion, or you’re confronted with a heavy challenge like an illness or injury, chances are you’re going to experience some issue at one time or another. And setbacks tend to lead to all the feelings.

Feeling negative emotions in response to complications can feel uncomfortable, but it’s how you deal with your challenging emotions that matters most. Stephen Joseph, PhD, wrote for Psychology Today that there are three primary ways of coping with setbacks: Problem-focused coping, emotion-focused coping, and avoidance. When someone approaches a setback in a problem-focused way, they look at their challenges as something to solve. They look at their situation from multiple perspectives, get help if they need it, and stay focused on following-through until their setback is resolved. If the situation can’t be changed, they move forward in a new or different direction. A main feature of problem-focused coping also involves dealing with negative emotions, Joseph wrote. “If we don’t deal with our emotions it can be hard to think clearly about our problems, and when faced with a setback that’s ultimately what we need to do,” he wrote.

According to Leigh Weingus writing for Well+Good, if you respond to setbacks with anger, it's not always a bad thing. Alison Stone, LCSW, told Well+Good that anger is like your emotional alarm system. Anger “sends an SOS trigger to the brain about how we’re feeling, or how we’re reacting to an outside event,” Stone said. “Any excessive negative feeling — fear, distress, shame, rejection — will likely trigger anger.” If you feel vulnerable in a big way, such as when you feel betrayed, exploited, or treated unfairly, anger might be part of your emotional response to that experience, Stone explained.

When you feel angry or overwhelmed, you might feel like you want to hide out, zone out, and just not deal. Joseph wrote that using avoidance when it comes to coping with emotions and problems might work for a little while — you might not be ready to deal with a trauma or painful situation yet. But, eventually, using avoidance as a coping strategy long-term has major drawbacks. “Avoidance prevents people from dealing with their problems and working through their emotions,” Joseph wrote.

Anger, not surprisingly, can become destructive when it’s not dealt with, Weingus wrote. If your habit is to bury your anger and negative emotions, you might be more prone to angry outbursts and/or lashing out when you’re faced with a trigger. Further, if you can’t be with your anger, and reflect on it from a place of self-compassion and curiosity, you also run the risk of losing your ability to think clearly when someone or something is pushing your buttons in an intense way, Weingus wrote. The more you're to stay fully present with your emotions, and then release them and move on, the more resilience you’ll be able to build when it comes to dealing with challenges.

Gila Ofner wrote in her book, A Bridge Over Troubled Water: Conflicts and Reconciliation In Groups and Society, that anger can be either healthy or destructive, depending on how it’s dealt with, and what it’s in response to. “Anger may be either a natural and healthy reaction based on the reality principle preserving life, or a destructive and unrealistic reaction.”

“Anybody can become angry, that is easy.” Ofner wrote. “But to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is … not easy.”

So, while it may seem like learning to harness your emotions effectively in the face of life’s setbacks takes some serious skill, it’s accessible when you have a few tools — but it can take some practice. Weingus wrote for Well+Good that a regular deep breathing and/or meditation practice can help you calm down, as can counseling with a trained therapist. Additionally, blowing off steam by getting a workout in, going for a walk outside, or writing your feelings out in a journal can help you release your anger, Sarah Fader wrote for Betterhelp.

If you find that your angry reactions to setbacks tend to stew, simmer, or otherwise don’t resolve, it might be a good idea to check in with a therapist to get at the root of what you’re feeling and why. With support, it's possible to figure out and manage your emotions when confronted with these kinds of issues.