Collage by Danielle Moalem / Photos courtesy of Getty Images

What To Do When Your Life Explodes

Deep breath, it’ll all be okay

by Carolyn Yates

Sometimes everything changes all at once. Whether it’s a sudden breakup, your dog getting hit by a car, your mom getting hit by a car, getting fired, or one of hundreds of other possible personal crises, bad things happen out of nowhere all the time. So how do you deal with them?

Press Pause

"The first thing is not to make any big decisions, to slow down and take care of yourself, and realize you’re not thinking clearly,” says psychologist Jenny Taitz, a member of the American Board of Professional Psychology and author of the forthcoming How To Be Single. "One of the first things that happens, when we start feeling things intensely, is we just can’t think.” Research shows that intense emotions get in the way of problem-solving and make people worse at IQ tests and logic problems. 

That means that no matter the situation, the first thing to do is slow down. To start, chill out—literally: Hold your breath while you stick your face into a bowl of ice water, press ice to your cheeks, or hold ice cubes in your hands. “Sticking your face into ice water or holding onto ice creates a dive response, where you physiologically calm down,” says Taitz. If you feel panicky, trying to stay present and grounded can also help. Focus on how your feet feel on the ground. Or look at your surroundings and name every object you see. "Saying, ‘That’s a plant, that’s a chair, that’s a table, that’s a clock,’ can get you out of that panic state and negative thought cycle,” says Grazel Garcia, a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Los Angeles. 

Be on the lookout for harmful coping mechanisms that may come with their own problems. Especially if the loss is complicated, "defense mechanisms are present as a temporary response that carries one through the first wave of pain. When overwhelming emotions are present, one could expect self-sabotaging,” like substance abuse, says Garcia.

And don't be afraid to call a crisis hotline if you need one. 

Don’t Be Upset That You’re Upset

So you’re calm, or at least as calm as you can be right now. Once you can think about what you’re feeling, it’s important to engage with your emotions and validate them. "A huge thing is normalizing—of course, you’re upset—validating your emotions, and before you even do that taking a step back and noticing what emotion you’re feeling and its intensity,” says Taitz. The alternative—judging the emotions, or yourself, for feeling them—means you have to experience both the original emotion and guilt or shame on top of it, which will make things even worse. "Avoiding emotions is what creates a crisis, and normalizing emotion is what’s really helpful,” she says. 

Not letting yourself feel could also have bodily consequences. "Some could experience trauma in their body if they’re holding on to all the emotions that have been suppressed,” says Garcia. “There are so many things that are held inside our body, and [suppression] is not creating any type of movement, so it could cause a lot of anxiety and symptoms of depression." 

Process, But Not Too Much 

After acknowledgment comes processing. "Overall, I see a benefit in processing as soon as all conditions are safe [with regard to the crisis event],” writes psychotherapist Wendy Ortiz, a Los Angeles-based licensed marriage and family therapist and author of Excavation: A Memoir, in an email. But whether or not to process is different for different people and circumstances. "With crisis, there may be all sorts of feelings and some of them, including grief, are not on any particular, linear timeline.” Spending a lot of time processing doesn't necessarily help, and can even do the opposite. 

“It’s not helpful to journal about it for five hours or enroll in a grief support group right away,” says Taitz. Doing so—along with thinking about what happened all the time, replaying it in your head, or telling every friend about it in exacting detail—is rumination, which can make suffering more intense. "Rumination is not accepting and repeatedly revisiting a painful experience, and rumination predicts having a really hard time coping,” says Taitz. Instead, accept what is happening and learn to be in the moment. 

Figure Out What To Even Do With Yourself 

As you start to move forward, structure is key. “When someone adheres to some kind of structure in the wake of crisis, they tend to benefit from even just the acts of being awake, with somewhere to go, something to do,” says Ortiz. Garcia recommends calling or meeting with someone you trust on a regular schedule, along with exercise, meditation, sleep, staying away from substances, and reaching out to emotionally healthy friends or a therapist. Ortiz recommends making lists: Who can you ask for support? What activities do you find comforting? What do you need to find balance day-to-day, or even hour-to-hour? 

If You Can, Avoid Big Decisions For Now 

“I’m recommending acceptance, validation, self-compassion, self-soothing. What I’m not recommending is pushing away, wishing things were different. But it’s a little tricky; some things you need to push away because you don’t want to make big decisions,” says Taitz. Even if you’ve relieved the immediate panic, it could be a while before you can think clearly. But sometimes there are decisions you can’t save for later. You can take time to figure out what you want from a future partner, but you can’t take time to figure out what you want from a eulogy. “But be nice to yourself,” says Taitz. "It’s really hard to think clearly after a death, you just need to make a good-enough decision.” When the time eventually comes to think bigger, “having a really clear sense of your values […] or a sense of purpose in life” can help with figuring out what’s next, says Taitz. But it’s okay if that time is a little ways away. “There are no set timelines for healing or growth and everyone's process is different,” says Ortiz. 

Only You Can Prepare For Emotional Devastation 

Bad things happen, and, at some point, something will happen that will make you feel really, really bad. You might as well prepare for it. "Destabilizing events can be surprising or something we've been aware of and have waited for. The question for me is, what resources has a person already set up and maintained that will support them in the wake of destabilizing events or crisis?” asks Ortiz. Practicing mindfulness, staying in the present moment, learning meditation—Taitz recommends Headspace—and building a full life that includes fun activities will all help you in a crisis, but even more so if you’re already familiar with them. So will social support. "Social support is really helpful in a crisis, so make sure that you have good friends, and to have good friends you need to be a good friend,” she says. 

Back To The Future

It’s eye-roll inducing, but try to see the possibilities for change and personal growth along with all the sadness and flux. "This is an opportune moment for someone to recognize that spending a huge chunk of your like imagining your future will be one way may not be useful or productive,” says Ortiz. "Life is about constant change, some changes more dramatic, some changes subtle—but it's always shifting.” So are emotions. Thankfully. “Realize that emotions come and go,” says Taitz. “People are really bad at predicting how they will feel in the future, and people are really bad at predicting how long and how intensely they will feel badly. Research finds people think, I will really not cope well if I break up, but actually, people end up coping better than they expect unless they think that they’re not going to cope very well, and then that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. […] Accept your emotion as what’s happening in this moment and don’t predict that you’ll feel that way forever.”