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4 Tips for How to Stay Calm When Things Go Wrong

Things going wrong is part of life. Here's how to cope.

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Mastering these key cognitive-emotional skills will help you cope better when things go wrong.

1. Don't jump to conclusions before you have full information.

Sometimes odd things happen in life. For example, once I got a message that said that multiple unknown attempts were being made to access my bank account. Of course, this freaked me out.

However, it turned out that it wasn't anything nefarious and was related to Mint (the financial tracking app) auto pulling information from the account. I had authorized it long ago, but I had never received any scary messages before, so I had no reason to consider that might've been the cause initially. A quick phone call to the bank was all it took to track down what was happening, but I had to tolerate my anxiety until their customer service team was open the next day.

Have you had situations like this that have been strange, but turned out to be nothing terrible?

Take home message: When odd things happen, don't panic prematurely.

2. Distinguish between a bump in the road versus the end of the road.

It's normal to experience frustrations and setbacks that require some extra work or take an emotional toll but don't actually significantly impact where you end up.

An example of this principle might be that the value of your retirement accounts bounces around, but by the time you retire, the average return matches your expectations. Or perhaps you unsuccessfully make offers on a few similar houses until, eventually, you get an offer accepted.

Sometimes you might experience setbacks or unexpected events that are minimal in the context of the overall picture. For instance, I got a $50 parking ticket on my summer vacation when I failed to notice the signs prohibiting parking during a few hours a week for street cleaning. This was annoying, but it only increased the cost of the vacation by $50.

It had also been a decade or more since I got a parking ticket. It was a bump in the road during an enjoyable vacation, but not the end of the road.

Take home message: Learn to recognize setbacks that are disappointing or frustrating, but that won’t prevent you from succeeding in the long run.

3. Ask yourself what lesson you need to learn if any, and move on.

In some emotionally-difficult situations, there is a lesson to learn so that you don't repeat the error. However, often, there isn't. In the parking ticket example, I might've concluded that I needed to increase my vigilance about looking out for street cleaning or other no parking signs. However, that's not really necessary if I only screw up once a decade, and the cost of the screw up is small. Whatever effort I already put into looking for no-parking signs is, in reality, enough.

Perfectionists who hate making mistakes can end up wracking their brain for how they can prevent similar things going wrong in the future, but consider if you already did all you reasonably could, and the issue happened regardless.

Another example of this I recently experienced was when a medical sample taken at my doctor's office was accidentally sent to an out-of-network lab, and I got an unexpected bill. I had double-checked they would send it to the in-network lab for my insurance, and it still happened. Double-checking should've been more than adequate. Deciding to triple-check in the future wouldn't be a logical solution.

Take home message: If there are obvious lessons to learn from errors, make those adjustments, but recognize that in many situations there isn't a change you need to make, and there's no sense ruminating about it. Recognize that there's a limit to which you should spend your life trying to prevent errors and a point of diminishing returns since some errors will happen regardless of even extreme efforts to prevent anything going wrong.

4. Consider whether you need to do a quick debrief.

Venting and going on and on complaining about something that has gone wrong is unlikely to be helpful to you and will probably be stressful and unpleasant for whoever you're unloading on.

On the other hand, briefly sharing about an experience you've had and getting some empathy can be just the release valve you need to prevent you from ruminating.

In some situations, it can be psychologically helpful to briefly voice a complaint, especially if you tend to feel better when you stand up for yourself, regardless of whether complaining has any impact.

Take home message: Understand the level of talking about the stress that’s helpful to you, and do that. You can judge the helpfulness by whether your rumination about the topic increases or decreases after sharing your stress.

Be aware of the impact of sharing your stress on the person you’re sharing with. Share with people who have the skills to be supportive of others without finding that too stressful themselves. And make sure you’re not asking for emotional support more often than you’re returning the favor.

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