How to manage when life throws you a curveball
By Marie Kouthoofd
Madison was in college when she was hit by a truck and left on the side of the road to die. The truck shattered her hips, left her mostly deaf and completely blind.
Shawn was still in high school. The medically induced coma was supposed to save him from a bad case of pneumonia. He miraculously came through, but never saw light again.
Me, I have a degenerative disease that progressively causes blindness. And so my talk began at a Parkinson’s disease support group.
The point? None of us asks for tragedy but it knocks on our door anyway. For some, it knocks harder and more often but it knocks indiscriminately, nonetheless.
The goal then, was not to promise a miracle cure. Nor was it to spew some Pollyanna-ish anecdote for pure happiness. The purpose was to deliver some solid, research-driven strategies for coping with the curveballs of life.
Personality, gender differences
Generally speaking, the way each and every one of us responds to tragedy or stressors in part depends on our personality and gender.
For instance, if you are the type A, competitive, hard-driving person with a touch of hostility under your belt, you may not bounce back as quickly as your easy-going type B counterpart. In fact, research indicates the former rather than the latter to be at higher risk for heart attack. The type D or distressed personality, like the type A, is next in line for sickness and coronary heart disease. Having a pessimistic world-view, type D’s tend to hold it all in. In a sense, their distress eats them from the inside out.
Men vs. women
Whether genetic or socially conditioned, gender can also play a role. Men on average in comparison to women tend to isolate and withdraw. Men may turn to alcohol or respond with aggression, whereas women may “tend and befriend;” that is, seek and serve others and in doing so form close bonds that provide social support.
While personality and gender differences are interesting and beneficial to know, these differences do not have the final say, but skills and strategies do.
Two ways to cope
Problem-focused coping assumes we hold the key. We either change ourselves or change our circumstances.
Emotion-focused coping is used when we can’t change our self or circumstance. In this case, we must tend to our emotional response to the situation.
Take traffic for example. If we find ourselves getting easily irritated in traffic, we can use one or both approaches. Using problem-focused coping, we rearrange our schedule to avoid rush hour or take a less-traveled route. We might give up driving all together and use public transit. If we are Warren Buffet, we buy our own jet.
With emotion-focused coping, we can avoid or ignore the situation and work more at strategies to reduce our stress. We might play stress-reducing music or an audiobook, engage in deep breathing exercises or recite a gratitude list.
Brainstorming or thinking of as many solutions to any given problem is key. In the above example, can you think of other viable ways to reduce stress?
Challenging life events
Stress is inevitable and sometimes not so easily resolved as traffic irritations. Beginning this article with some extreme cases of life-changing obstacles, it seems appropriate to finish with one brave Parkinson’s disease survivor’s not-so-easy solutions to her difficult and immovable situation.
Mary Yost, having been first diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, stated her biggest struggle was not the diagnosis in and of itself; rather, it was her marriage. It seems her husband was put off by her diagnosis. Whether he lacked the ability or desire to care for her as the disease progressed is unknown. One thing was clear: She knew she could not manage both her marriage and Parkinson’s.
With that, she filed for divorce and moved into the health-related facility of her choice (problem-focused coping).
She now participates in support groups, exercise classes and enjoys the support of friends and family (emotion-focused coping).
Yost knew she had little power over her diagnosis, created the environment she needed to thrive, engaged in activities that would help her manage her Parkinson’s and is living a peaceful existence the best way she knows how.
Stress is inevitable and life will throw us curveballs, but how we manage through is up to us. If you don’t like your life, find a way to change it (problem-focused coping). If you can’t change it, change the way you respond (emotion-focused). Better said, if life serves you lemons, make lemonade (problem-focused coping) and if someone is pushing your buttons, then move your buttons (emotion-focused coping).
What will you do the next time life throws you a curveball?
Can you cope?
A few simple strategies can serve as a driving force to minimize the ill effects of stress in your life.
The more skills you have to fall back on, the better. Do what you can with what you have. Brainstorm your way out of difficult situations. The more solutions you search for, the more you’ll find and the better you’ll get.
A good question to ask your self is, “What’s the worst that could happen?”
American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said it well in his 1930’s serenity prayer:
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change (emotion-focused coping)
“Courage to change the things I can (problem-focused coping)
“And the wisdom to know the difference”
Don’t talk to me that way!
If we don’t like the way someone talks to us, we might first observe our self. See if we may be facilitating the behavior. Perhaps we talk offensively, as well.
If so, change your communication style. If this is not the case, tell them how you feel. If no change ensues, you may consider ending the relationship (problem-focused coping).
If ending a relationship is not an option, alleviate your stress in other ways. Change the way you respond. Limit your interaction with this person or avoid conversations that create disharmony. Ignore what you can, accept the person for who they are, warts and all.
Better yourself by seeking out and learning new coping strategies and enjoy your self-created serenity.
“So often times it happens, that we live our lives in chains
“And we never even know we have the key”
— The Eagles (1974)
Don’t let the stressors in your life chain you — learn new coping strategies and set yourself free!