Dealing with the difficult moments

Do you recognise those moments?

When whatever you’re trying just doesn’t seem to be going anywhere? And you just don’t seem to be getting any breaks?

When you’re trying to discover what you want or to take steps towards it and there just seems to be no progress at all?

Such moments (or even periods) can really get the best of you. They can make you want throw your hands up in the air and tempt you to give up.

How do you get through these times? And how do you keep going? This edition of Maxand’s Insights is all about dealing with the difficult moments and keeping them from starting to lead a life of their own.


1. Introduction

Feeling unsure about what you want or how to get to where you want can be quite unsettling. We tend to find this easier to cope with when there’s at least something moving to get us out of the current situation. But sometimes this just doesn’t happen.

Perhaps you thought you were getting closer to understanding what you want, but you find yourself all confused again. Or perhaps you know where you’d like to go, but that step forward you took last week only resulted in two steps back today. You may feel you have decisions to make, but you’re just not ready to make them.

Could very well be that this just isn’t the right time. Or that the stars haven’t lined up. It may simply take more effort for something to turn into reality. Or you need to wait for other things to happen or people to get involved.

In itself, this is what it is. It’s not bigger or smaller than the fact that perhaps today nothing is in motion (as far as you know at least; things could of course be developing in the background without you being aware of it).

In such times, it’s normal to feel emotions like frustration, anger, jealousy, discouragement, hopelessness, despair or guilt. Emotions we would often qualify as “negative”. Emotions that could be beneficial to us, but that could also lead us to destructive actions when we take them out on others or ourselves.

So how do you deal with such moments?

Everyone has their own personal preferences. And everyone deals with difficult times a bit differently based on their personality, the way they’ve grown up and the context around them. However, scientific research¹ has shown that some strategies work better than others. So here’s some guidance on what might be helpful.


1. Accept what is …

Let’s say you’ve been trying to figure out what it is you want in life. You feel like you’re not making any progress and this feels bad in some way.The first thing you want to do is to recognise and accept what’s happening and what you’re feeling².

‘Why’s that?’, you may think. Well, as it turns out, trying to change, suppress or avoid your feelings has proven to require mental energy and impact your ability to do well on tasks and problem-solving. Equally, denial – which can be a very helpful strategy in the beginning – is not likely to help you in the longer run.

Accepting what’s happening can be quite challenging, particularly if you’re really wishing things would be different. Here are some tips.

  • In reflecting on your current situation, see if you can identify the things you’re unhappy with as well as anything you can be grateful for. Try to accept these things for what they are. The challenge can sometimes be to stay as objective as you can, and not to either exaggerate or underestimate what the situation means to you. If you’ve identified anything that needs to be dealt with urgently, take steps to do so.
  • When it comes to your emotions, see if you can get a sense of what they are and what they’re telling you. Emotions can act as valuable indicators and rich sources of information. Increasing clarity for yourself around what you’re feeling has proven to be beneficial, both in the short as well as longer-term.
  • Perhaps it’s helpful to know that sensing, labeling and clarifying your own emotions is a skill. Something you can get better at with practice. If you could use some help in practicing your ability to unravel what you’re feeling, consider using stream-of-consciousness writing or alternatively confide in a trusted friend/relative who can help you untangle your emotions³.
  • At some point, you’ll find that your thoughts and emotions are not giving you as much new information about yourself or your situation. Thinking about them more at this stage has very little added value. It may even become destructive if you get caught in continuous negative thoughts about the situation and the impact is has on you (also called “ruminating”). The time has come to try to regulate your thoughts and emotions a bit more. Try to find a way to slowly let go of them. If this turns out to be difficult, note that distraction has proven to be a very effective strategy in avoiding unhelpful rumination. Find something that will distract you (also see sections 3 and 4 below for further tips). Alternatively, get the emotions “off your chest”, for example by journaling or talking with a friend.


2. Try not to make matters worse

Now, before taking any next steps, you want to make sure you’re not making a bad situation worse. Below are some of the more common things we sometimes do to undermine ourselves, including some tips on how to deal with them.

  • Try to avoid adding an extra layer of emotions by feeling bad about feeling bad. As an example, let’s say you’re feeling stuck, because you find yourself indecisive. Adding a feeling of guilt about feeling indecisive in general doesn’t help. If you catch yourself placing a value or judgment on your emotions, see if you can be a bit less harsh on yourself.
  • If you catch yourself having an internal dialogue that makes you feel worse or the situation appear more gloomy, try to find ways to stop yourself from doing so. Again, doing something else to distract yourself has often proven to be very effective (also see below).
  • Avoid so-called “venting”. Venting is a form of spewing out of thoughts and emotions without any reflection and often without the intention of understanding them better. It tends to only confirm negative thought patterns. In the worst case, it may also affect relationships and become destructive, for example when the uncritical venting happens between colleagues in a work place.
  • Whatever you do, try no to take your emotions out on others or take actions that could be harmful or counterproductive.
  • In general, avoid activities that are harmful to you in the short or longer term. While a nice glass of wine may be a good source of first comfort, don’t go off into drinking spree. Avoid things like drugs, overeating, taking extreme risks, et cetera. It may bring immediate relief, but will likely add to the challenges going forward.

Some of these things can be very tempting and hard to resist, particularly in the heat of the moment. Take it one step at the time and be proud of every beneficial or nurturing decision you make, even if you think it’s only a small one …


3. Give yourself a hug and activate positive emotions

While you’re coming to grips with what’s happening, research has shown that it can be very helpful to activate more positive emotions at the same time. As it turns out, different types of emotions tend to have a distinct effect on the way we approach the situation. Negative emotions activate neural networks in our brain and coping mechanisms that tend to narrow our sight. Problems tend to get solved at a slower pace, using specific information only. By contrast, positive emotions help us adopt a broader vision and lighten our mood. In a way, it’s like lifting our eyes up to the horizon. We tend to experience more space, have less negative thoughts and find it easier to see more and more creative options.

To activate positive emotions and lessen the impact of negative emotions, the first thing you can do is to “give yourself a hug”. You could take this literally of course, but basically what you’re looking for is creating moments that are soothing, relaxing and enjoyable.

What this looks like in real life is very different for each and everyone of us. For some, it’s the joy of meeting friends over a soccer game. Or playing with the dog. It could be the smell of fresh-cut grass and forest. Or listening to the tones of Brahm’s third Symphony in F major. For me, it’s watching the lights of the city skyline come up at dusk or the first taste of soto ajam (Indonesian chicken soup).

Here are a few more examples:

  • The taste of cranberries
  • Going for a walk at dawn when no body is up yet
  • Reading a book
  • Singing
  • Playing board games with a friend
  • The scents on a sea breeze

What is it that works for you? You probably have a number of things you can think of. See if you can identify a few that are within easy reach and indulge yourself a little. Allow yourself the time and space to enjoy some comforting moments and activate positive feelings alongside the negative feelings you’re experiencing.


4. Nurture yourself

Apart from little moments of joy, there are a number of things you can do to further reduce negative thoughts and emotions. And to boost positive emotions and strengthen your general resilience in the face of challenging situations.

The key theme here is nurturing yourself, ideally in ways that you enjoy (enhancing positive moods) and that help you to not ruminate (providing distraction).

Here are a number of key ways to do so.

  • Spend time with others => Spend time with trusted friends or family (of course observing any necessary measures to keep everyone safe and healthy given Covid-19). While you may or may not tell them specifically what you’re going through, even being with trusted other people can be a source of support. And a great way to create some distraction from the thoughts and feelings that may otherwise walk away with you. Note that isolating yourself from others has been associated with more intensely experienced negative moods over relatively longer periods of time. Emotions can then start to lead a life of their own and may make it more difficult to deal with the situation. Try to stay connected with other people in some way (also see the article with “Tips on handling your social context while discovering what you want“).
  • Disclose your thoughts and feelings => If safe and appropriate to do so, confide in trusted others to get practical and/or emotional support. You could also use the opportunity to ask for their help in creating clarity in what you’re thinking and feeling.
  • Find positive meaning => The way we assess and value the things that happen to us and the situations we find ourselves in is greatly influenced by the meaning we attribute to them. Hardship can be difficult to endure if it appears meaningless. That same hardship is much easier to handle if we believe it will lead to something.
    See if you can find ways to give positive meaning to what is happening to you. What positive things might come from what you’re struggling with today? Is there anything that your current experiences would enable you to do in the future? Or to put it differently: is there anything you simply wouldn’t be able to do, if you weren’t experiencing what you’re experiencing today? Perhaps what you’re going through today is teaching you things that will make you more resilient in the future. Or maybe going through your current experiences will empower you to help others. Perhaps what you’re going through is a sign of much-needed change …
  • If the situation allows, use positive humour in reflecting on the situation and your thoughts and emotions. Humour is very effective in lightening your spirits, activating positive emotions and creating a bit of reflective distance. This – in turn – will enable you to widen your vision and take a step back. It may also help others in supporting you through the hard times. Be careful to use positive and constructive humour in reflecting on the situation and yourself, as this has proven to have beneficial effects. By contrast, negative, derogatory humour either has no effect or a negative effect on being able to deal with a situation effectively.
  • Look after yourself. Eat well, sleep well and engage in some form of physical activity. Ideally, find things to do that allow you to immerse yourself fully in the moment. These activities not only provide distraction, but also help your body, brain and mind in dealing with the impact of stress (heightened heart rate, high blood pressure, stress hormones etc.).


5. Take it one day at the time

In the difficult moments the situation can appear quite desperate or too big of a challenge to handle. You may feel like you want to disengage from everything.

Note that disengagement as a way of dealing with situations tends to only be effective if there’s absolutely nothing you can do to influence the outcome. If the future course is definitely and completely out of your hands. Usually, this is not the case. And usually, disengagement is not the most effective way to move forward (for further tips, have a look at “Taking charge of the direction your life is taking – Avoiding pitfalls and creating more opportunities“).

So stay engaged. Try not to worry too much about having bad moments. They’re part of the game. The trick is to take it one day at the time and be patient. Focus on what you can learn from the past, what to be grateful for in the present and how you could move forward towards the future.

And then take a step, however small. On your journey in discovering what you want, try to do 1 thing a day, no matter how small. If you think about it, there’s always something you can do.

Think of things like:

  • Register yourself for a newsletter around a topic you’re interested in
  • Clean up a drawer
  • Fill in a form
  • Make an appointment
  • Try something new (also see “Small & simple things to start with today“)

You may not know how this very small thing may in the end contribute to your bigger journey. You may consider this very small thing to be even too insignificant to do. It doesn’t matter. Do it anyway!


1. Background information

A lot of research has been done in the domain of effective coping. Below are a selection of articles from across the world which can serve as examples and have been sources for the current article:

  • Alberts, H.J.E.M., Schneider, F., & Martijn, C. (2012). Dealing efficiently with emotions: Acceptance-based coping with negative emotions requires fewer resources than suppression. Cognition and Emotion, 26(5), 863-870.
  • Brown, S.P., Westbrook, R.A., & Challagalla, G. (2005). Good cope, bad cope: Adaptive and maladaptive coping strategies following a critical negative work event. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90(4), 792-798.
  • Fink, L., Warrenburg, L., Howlin, C., Randall, W., Hansen, N., & Wald-Fuhrmann, M. (2021). Viral Tunes: Changes in musical behaviours and interest in corona music predict socio-emotional coping during Covid-19 lockdown. PsyArXiv, January.
  • Folkman, S. (2008). The case for positive emotions in the stress process. Anxiety, Stress & Coping: An International Journal, 21(1), 3-14.
  • Fredrickson, B.L. (2000). Cultivating positive emotions to optimize health and wellbeing. Prevention & Treatment, 3(1), Article 1.
  • Kross, E., Davidson, M., Weber, J., & Ochsner, K. (2009). Coping with emotions past: The neural bases of regulating affect associated with negative autobiographical memories. Biological Psychiatry, 65(5), 361-366.
  • Larsen, J.T., Hemenover, S.H., Norris, C.J., & Cacioppo, J.T. (2003). Turning adversity to advantage: On the virtues of coactivation of positive and negative emotions. In L.G. Aspinwall & U.M. Staudinger (Eds.), A Psychology of Human Strengths: Fundamental questions and future directions for a positive psychology (p. 211-225). American Psychological Association: Washington, USA.
  • Morgenroth, O., Keck, M., & Gensicke, M. (2021). Time will tell: Time perspective as a source for metacognitive emotion-focused coping and its measurement. Personality and Individual Differences, 168 (January).
  • Rao, N.M., Yi, S., Yu, D., Husain, K., Sun, Y., Munawar, M., Hernandez, V., Kamble, S.V., & Chang, E.C. (2021). Coping styles as predictors of negative affective conditions in Asian Indians: does being optimistic still make a difference. The Journal of General Psychology, January.
  • Rasskazova, E.I., Leontiev, D.A., & Lebedeva, A.A. (2020). Pandemic as a challenge to subjective well-being: Anxiety and coping – Covid-19 Research Collaborations. Counseling Psychology & Psychotherapy, 28(2), 90-108.
  • Salovey, P., Bedell, B.T., Detweiler, J.B., & Mayer, J.D. (1999). Coping Intelligently: Emotional intelligence and the coping process. In C.R. Snyder (Ed.),  Coping: The psychology of what works (p. 141-164). Oxford University Press: New York, USA.
  • Samson, A.C., Glassco, A.L., Lee, I.A., & Gross, J.J. (2014). Humorous coping and serious reappraisal: Short-term and longer-term effects. Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 10(3), 571-581.
  • Stallman, H.M. (2020). Health theory of coping. Australian Psychologist, 55(4), 295-306.
  • Stanislava, P., Jelena, S., & Dusan, S. (2021). Activity matters: Physical exercise and stress coping during the 2020 Covid-19 state of emergency. Psyhologija, January.
  • Yang, F. (2021). Coping strategies, cyberbullying behaviours, and depression among Chinese netizens during the Covid-19 pandemic: a web-based nationwide survey. Journal of Affective Disorders, 281, 138-144.

2. Assessing your situation

For the current article, we assume that you’re not in a situation where you are in immediate danger. If you do find yourself in harm’s way, try to take necessary steps and precautions to make the situation safe and secure for yourself and any dependents. Seek help from trusted friends or relatives, or from medical experts, local authorities or social organisations if relevant.

3. Scope of the current article

Note that the current article focuses on challenging situations in normal daily-life situations. Situations that involve emotions that fall outside of the normal range in terms of intensity, complexity or duration are not in scope. Such situations would for example include instances of complicated grief, extreme life events such as war and human trafficking as well as mental health problems including substance abuse. In such cases, seek help from expert health professionals if such services are accessible to you or alternatively talk to someone you trust.

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