Bouncing Back: Coping With The Unexpected

GrassGrowingThroughPavementJust when life seems to be going smoothly, something happens to throw us for a loop – an accident, chronic illness, financial setback or a relationship breakup, to name a few.

These are the types of events that we cannot fully prepare for. But fortunately most of us have what it takes to deal with them.

It’s called resilience–the ability to bounce back from adversity. And while the rebound is typically neither quick nor smooth, coping with the unexpected is the norm, not the exception. We are built for the task, with a mind that is resourceful and creative, and emotional flexibility to cushion the impact.

Resilience helps us adapt to challenging circumstances. The adjustment process takes time, and there are difficult spots. But chances are you’ll end up stronger and even more resilient at the other end.

Here are some tips for drawing on your resilience:



  • When unexpected events occur, it’s normal to feel angry, sad or shocked at first. Allow yourself to experience these emotions. But don’t overlook the positive ones. Notice that there are times when you feel calm or even amused. Allow yourself to fully experience these feelings as well.
  • It’s normal to worry about the future. Try to tolerate the unknown for now. As you learn more facts and explore options, your worries will diminish.
  • Expect emotional ups and downs. There will be stretches when you’re fine and other periods when you feel overwhelmed. With time the overwhelming episodes will subside in frequency and intensity.


  • Be optimistic. How you talk to yourself about the event can be critical in how well and how soon you adjust to it. Avoid using catastrophic words like “horrible,” “never,” or “always” in your thoughts. As much as you can, try to view the situation as a challenge. You may not know exactly how you’re going to deal with it, but assume that you have the psychological tools to adapt.
  • Recall previous times when you had to deal with adversity. Think of what you did that helped you get through it. This will reveal to you some of your best coping strategies. How can you apply these strategies to your current situation?
  • Find something to be grateful for, and think of it in terms of “At least…” People tend to do this naturally in devastating circumstances, e.g., “We lost everything in the fire, but at least we got out alive.” This same type of thinking also works in less dire situations: “What a shock to be diagnosed with diabetes. But at least there are workable treatment options.” It’s a simple shift in perspective that can go a long way in giving you hope.


  • To regain a sense of control when you feel as if your life is in an upheaval, keep a routine as much as possible. Wake up and go to sleep at the same time every day. Eat at mealtimes. Stay active, as you are able. Do small tasks to pass the time and to help you feel productive.
  • At the beginning don’t make any long-term plans. Focus on what you can do now. For example, if you just lost your job, figure out ways to immediately cut unnecessary expenses.
  • As your emotions settle down, you will be able to think more clearly and to explore options. Organize a plan, but remain flexible. For example, after getting past the initial shock of your relationship breakup, structure your life to meet new people – join a gym, take a class, volunteer, etc. It may take some trial and error to settle into a schedule of activities that you enjoy.
  • Don’t go it alone. Spend time with family or friends. Talk things out with those whom you respect and trust. Get together with people who are, or who have been in similar circumstances – you might get some ideas that you hadn’t previously thought of to help you cope.

Like any psychological journey, your mileage may vary on the above suggestions. There is no set timetable, no one-size-fits-all solution. But the fact that you have made it this far in life is evidence that you have built up resilience to adapt to a wide variety of situations.

That’s a good thing, because when you think about it, life is a series of one adaptation after another.

Note: Some circumstances challenge your resilience beyond its capability, to the point where you feel you can barely function. If this persists beyond a few days, you are advised to seek the guidance of a psychologist or other mental health professional.

Helpful resource:

The American Psychological Association Help Center’s “Road to Resilience

Photo Credit: 2. via Compfight cc

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