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7 Steps for Managing Bad News

June 29, 2019DMT.NEWS


It's hard to imagine a life that escapes setbacks. From health issues to the loss of a loved one, from job disappointments to romantic heartbreaks, most of us must experience a blow-- even a devastating one-- at some point in our lives. It's often something we're not prepared for, and it can markedly change our mental and even physical health-- even in just an instant. While no advice can totally mitigate the emotional pain of a life-changing difficulty, there are steps that we can take to maximize our coping ability in the process.

1) Take a breath and slow yourself down. When negative, life-changing news hits, it can feel like a whirlwind-- even as time seems to stand still. Your thoughts may speed up into a breathless spin cycle; you may see everything you care about flash before you; you may envision all kinds of further catastrophe. Everything you came to believe may feel like it was erased in one moment's time. Your heart may race, your stomach may drop, or you may feel like you're going to faint. Take a moment. Don't feel like you have to respond right away. Focus on your breath. If you are in a potentially unsafe situation, like walking among busy streets, driving, or holding a young child, mindfully take a second to put yourself in a situation where no one is in danger. The more you can slow yourself down, the less likely you are to do something you regret-- and the more like you are to keep yourself and others safe.

2) Ground yourself in the here and now. If everything seems to be spinning, focus on where you are in the room or outside. Often, people tell others to be sitting down before they deliver bad news-- but sitting down doesn't just help mitigate the damage if you were to faint, but it also helps you mentally be more in touch with your surroundings. If you are feeling symptoms of depersonalization (like you are observing everything happening to you as someone detached from the situation altogether) or derealization (things seem surreal, or like they are not really happening) and they are causing you distress, grounding yourself in the moment by focusing on four things that you see in the room--  even naming them-- can help. You may also choose to focus on how your feet feel when touching the floor, how your clothes feel against your skin, or the stability of your weight in the chair. Most of all, focus on slow inhales through your nose, and slow exhales out of your mouth. This helps bring your awareness back to your current surroundings and ground you in the moment.

3) Assemble your team. Few of us can optimally manage terrible news completely on our own, and why would we want to try? As you begin to process the news, think of others who can help support you as you move forward with it. From a friend that you want to text right away to ask if she can pick your children up from school, to a family member who may also be affected by this news but whom you know will help console you as well, there will be different roles for different people. Medical news will involve researching and assembling a support team as well. Who are these people? They can be your greatest allies.

4) Make a preliminary plan. Of course, immediately after hearing most bad news, you need not launch into a full-scale plan-- assembling your support team should most definitely come first-- but in general, having even a broad, general plan of how you want to proceed to manage this news can help you feel that the situation is more predictable, which decreases your sense of stress. Of course, not all news needs to be managed logistically. Sometimes the managing is just reckoning with it emotionally. But when there are decisions to be made, details to be worked out, or events to be planned (such as a memorial service), it can bring a helpful sense of autonomy to begin to think of a general road map that you will use to navigate your move forward.

5) Get over the barrier of asking for what you need. So many of us have difficulty asking for help, or even articulating that we need it. But if there is ever a time to nudge ourselves through this discomfort, it is when we are managing a significant setback. Figure out who of your team would most be able to assist you in specific things, and ask them. The worst that can happen is that they say "no." (And that is unlikely, as people tend to get a mood boost from helping others, and they generally like to feel needed by those they care about when they are going through something difficult. It helps keep the relationship close.)

6) Keep an eye on self-care. The double-whammy of bad news is that not only does it wear you down emotionally, but it makes you less able to care for yourself going forward: sleep, exercise, nutritious eating, outdoor time, social time, and participating in beloved hobbies are all among the first to fall by the wayside when hard times hit. It's not necessarily realistic that you will keep up the same nourishing self-care routine that you had before the bad news (and it's most certainly not easy to start good self-care then, if you hadn't already been engaging in it), but even the smallest steps in that direction can add up to make a difference in your physical and mental health. Squeezing in a nap. Taking a walk. Calling a friend. Keeping up your water intake. This extends to self-compassion too: let yourself feel, and don't hold yourself to impossible standards about how you "should" be doing. Don't be your worst enemy by neglecting to be kind to yourself during this time.

7) Consider professional support if needed. There's no magic question that determines whether you "should" seek therapy in a time of great emotional upheaval. But don't rule it out; it can often be a very beneficial tool. It doesn't mean that something is "wrong" with you if you need to see a therapist; it just means that you want to optimize your coping. Support groups, individual counseling, and the possibility of medication are all available to you, and there are even many different resources online for dealing with difficult situations. Don't go it alone if you don't have to.

What has helped you cope with difficult news? Let me know in the comments!

When you've been hit with something difficult, here's what to remember.
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Virtually no one escapes bad news at some point in their life. While it may threaten to knock you over, here are some steps for maintaining your emotional balance.
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abonior, Khareem Sudlow

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