From a major heartbreak or loss of a loved one to a serious illness, accident, or professional setback, life can lob you some serious curveballs.
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Certain factors, like your home life and strength of your IRL social network, can help determine how quickly you’ll bounce back. But what also matters is what you do in the days, weeks, and months following a traumatic event. These actions set the tone for how quickly and effectively you steer yourself back from disaster.
If you’ve found yourself smacked in the face by reality, hang on. With this expert-backed advice, you can begin to get back on the right track, even when you feel like everything is falling apart.
4 Steps to Reset
1. Get your feet on the ground.
When your world gets rocked, your trust in the world around you, other people, and sometimes even yourself is thrown into question, says psychiatrist and trauma specialist Sudhir Gadh, M.D. As a result, you may feel less stable, more afraid, and see your day-to-day realities as far more threatening than they truly are.
“When we’re hurt—emotionally or physically—we naturally want to find a corner to hide in and despair over how or why something awful has happened to us,” Gadh says.“But indulging this impulse can inflame rumination, self-blame, and fear.”
Shame and guilt also play a huge role in propelling people toward isolation—or, in many cases, secrecy, adds Paul D. Hokemeyer, Ph.D., a certified clinical trauma professional. “They feel they need to handle what happened on their own or don’t want to burden others,” he explains.
But reestablishing a sense of security through social support is key to getting back on your feet. Reach out to loved ones and other people you trust, opting for in-person conversations rather than virtual ones when possible, Gadh says. Physical proximity, interpersonal touch, and eye contact foster a stronger sense of connectedness than text messages and emails, while compassionate contact has been shown to lower blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol levels.
That said, if the trauma affects your ability to function despite discussing it with a trusted circle, consider consulting with a doc about medication, Gadh says. Meds are like crutches, he adds: “There’s no shame in using them—they’re temporary, supportive, and they accelerate healing.”
2. Pursue positivity.
Engaging in pleasant activities that bring about positive emotions is a big part of self-care and support, says Barbara O. Rothbaum, Ph.D., director of Emory University’s Trauma and Anxiety Recovery program and author of Reclaiming Your Life From a Traumatic Experience: a Prolonged Exposure Treatment Program (Treatments That Work). Joyful memories and feelings help buffer you from sinking too deeply into despair’s depths, research shows.
A few ways to cultivate positivity: Surround yourself with friends, kiss your romantic partner, or simply stream a funny movie with a pal. You may even want to say yes to a social event you’re inclined to dip out of and challenge yourself to seek out stimulating conversation. Whatever you do, participate. Research shows the more you remain present in a situation, the more likely it is to make you feel better.
That isn’t to say you should avoid negative feelings altogether; rather, you should seek joy in order to strip unsettling memories of their power to convince you that all hope is lost.
3. Confront your feelings.
We have to make sense of—and find meaning in—setbacks in order to keep them from imprisoning us, Gadh says. This means facing the shame, guilt, anger, sadness, helplessness, and other difficult feelings without stewing in victimhood or getting trapped by rage and resentment. If you don’t feel safe doing this with a close friend, partner, or family member, it’s wise to seek the assistance of someone versed in trauma recovery.
Particularly helpful in this regard is a protocol called “prolonged exposure therapy,” Rothbaum says. This involves narrating a traumatic event in the present tense, discussing emotions affiliated with it, and, with a therapist’s aid, identifying unhelpful thoughts (such as “I’ll never find love again,” “No one can be trusted,” or “I’m a total failure”) and swapping them with resilient ones (such as “I can find someone who loves me,” “Many people can be trusted,” or “I am not a failure because I can learn and grow from mistakes”).
To improve the odds of doing this effectively, it’s crucial to keep drinking to a minimum and avoid recreational drugs or compulsive behaviors (from gambling and sex to shopping and even overexercise), Gadh says. Though these outlets offer illusory respites from difficult-to-face emotions, “they don’t help us to reframe and resolve our recent experiences so that they fit into the narrative arc of our lives.”
Plus, the stress substances and risky behaviors bring can cause further suffering, he adds, especially if they propel you into dangerous situations where you could encounter further adversity.
4. Get back out there.
Though you may wish to avoid people, places, and things that trigger memories of a recent life upheaval—or remind you of the ways you believe you have failed—one of the biggest mistakes people make is not getting back in the game, Rothbaum says.
Do it sooner than later, she suggests. Returning to a daily routine helps ready you to resume your life, encouraging you to move past post-trauma difficulties, forge new memories, and regain a sense of mastery over yourself and the world.
Granted, there are some caveats. For example, if you’re injured, don’t force yourself back into your previous exercise routine until you’ve gotten medical clearance. “The point of exposure is not to eliminate fear of real danger,” Rothbaum says, “but to become comfortable again with people, places, and situations that are objectively safe and important for the person in living her life.”
Some examples: Learning to take public transportation or ride in a car again after an accident, dating after a devastating breakup, or taking your time to get intimate with a new lover after you’ve been assaulted. Or perhaps it’s learning to trust new acquaintances if a close friend betrayed you or applying and interviewing for jobs after being laid off, fired, or quitting because of a physical or mental health concern.
People aren’t made of Teflon, says Gadh, so don’t expect to bounce back from major life setbacks overnight. Experiences (both good and bad) alter us. Scrap judgments about what you’re experiencing or whether you’re making enough progress in a finite amount of time, Rothbaum says.
And remember: “Everyone has resiliency somewhere inside them. It’s evolutionarily wired into us,” Hokemeyer says. Rekindling that inherent ability—which requires you to seek support, face your biggest fears, and challenge unhelpful thoughts and beliefs about yourself and the world around you—is what getting “back on track” truly means.