Coping with setbacks

Coping with setbacks

Setbacks and problems come to all of us no matter how well prepared we try to be. But how is it that some people seem to shrug them off, and others seem to go downhill? And how can you learn to be more resilient?

One of the first steps in dealing with setbacks and problems is to recognise that our brains are actually better at dealing with demanding experiences than with less intense problems. This is the “beta-region paradox”, an idea developed by Daniel Todd Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard University.

Gilbert believes that when our psychological distress is over a certain threshold then we bring our emotional strength and abilities to bear. However less distressing events don’t prompt the same reaction, and so continue for much longer. Take the example of a man finding out his partner has been having an affair. He would be better equipped to cope with a shock like that than to cope with their tuneless whistling every day. The shock of the affair prompts psychological coping mechanisms whilst the everyday annoyance never reaches that same level.

So when you do find yourself returning to the same old worry or problem the first step is not to see yourself as ineffective or weak. Recognise it instead as part of the way that our brains work, and then deal with how you are thinking about the setback.

In his book “The 7 habits of highly effective people” the author Stephen Covey discusses the idea of circles of influence, and circles of concern. The “circle of concern” is a circle that contains everything that worries you. The “circle of influence” is a smaller circle within the “circle of concern”, like the inner ring on a target. It’s this circle that contains the smaller set of concerns that we can actually have some control over.

Covey sees effective people as concentrating on their “circle of influence”. They look at what is troubling them there and, importantly, bring their influence to bear. Those people however who concentrate on their “circle of concern” spend their time focussng on concerns that they may well have no influence over. Fundamentally though their approach is to ask “What is wrong?” rather than to ask “What can I do?”

Changing how you look at what is around you, from “What is wrong?” to ask “What can I do?” is a great technique for becoming more resilient. This is because it will help you to learn not to focus attention on areas where you cannot act. If the answer to “What can I do?” is “Nothing” then the next step isn’t to try and establish some control. In that case the next step is to stop worrying about the problem and to move on.

This is very like “active worrying”, a CBT technique that I have successfully used with worriers. As people learn to a more structured approach to concerns they learn to either act on them, or to leave them. Coping with setbacks is much easier when you aren’t spending mental energy on things that you can’t change or that might never happen.

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