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7 Expert Tips for Adapting to Life’s Curveballs

Life throws us curveballs all the time—and sometimes, all in one day. These curveballs might be relatively minor: a work project doesn’t go your way, your colleague makes a hurtful remark, your car won’t start, you get sick before a big presentation, your kids won’t sleep.

Or these curveballs might be major and (initially) seem insurmountable: You don’t get into your first-choice school. You don’t get the promotion. You lose your job. Your relationship ends. You need surgery.

Big or small, these situations might lead you to feel very overwhelmed—and frustrated.

So, you stew and wallow. You vent and complain. You wish things were different. You focus on the past. And you remain stuck. Or you make hasty decisions—and then feel regret.

All of these reactions and actions are completely understandable because effectively navigating life often requires skills that we still need to sharpen. And that’s OK. Because you can absolutely strengthen them.

We turned to seasoned clinical psychologist Ryan Howes, Ph.D, for insights into how we can healthfully adapt to life’s inevitable challenges and changes.

Process your emotions. When a situation surprises us, we often “try to bypass the hurt and anger and loss and just plow ahead reactively into the next life change,” Howes said. However, this can lead us to make rash, emotional decisions, or to live in a constant state of stress.

Howes shared this example: After losing your job, rather than process the shock and fear, you immediately start searching for a new position. When you land another job, the circumstances are different from your previous role, but you’re constantly worried you’ll be fired. And you start sabotaging your own success.

Howes stressed the importance of allowing yourself to feel your emotions—which might be anything from sorrow to anger to disappointment to resentment. Don’t judge the feelings that arise. Try to welcome them.

Look for the lesson. Howes suggested observing what happened and exploring why it happened. What can you learn from this situation? What can you learn about yourself? Maybe there’s something you need to work on (e.g., managing your anxiety or anger better; not jumping to conclusions; keeping a more positive perspective; starting projects earlier). What can you do so it doesn’t happen next time? How might you handle the situation better in the future?

Reframe catastrophic thoughts. When we feel overwhelmed by change, our minds start coming up with all kinds of catastrophes and worst-case scenarios. “Picture someone who loses a job and then starts telling themselves they are a horrible employee and they’ll never find another job,” Howes said.

One way to reframe catastrophic thoughts and gain perspective is to talk to someone who’s successfully navigated a similar challenge, he said. Another way is to explore the reality of your fears inside your journal. List all your worries, and ask yourself how likely they are to happen, Howes said.

“In a pinch, you can even just speak all of these fears out loud to hear yourself saying them—sometimes this is enough to help you see that you’re blowing it out of proportion.”

Build a strong support system. This is especially helpful when you’re dealing with an unexpected loss, Howes said. Your support system may include “people who are both sharing your loss and outsiders who aren’t so personally affected.” It also might include a mental health professional, who can help you process your pain, uncover insights, and learn new tools.

“It may take some effort to reach out and let yourself be cared for in this way, but the compassion and grounding your support provides will have lasting benefits,” Howes said.

Remember your resilience. In the moment, when you’re stressed out and vulnerable, it’s hard to see just how strong and resilient you really are. Which is why Howes suggested reflecting on “all the surprises and unexpected changes you’ve weathered before and notice how you were able to survive and move forward.” If you’re having trouble, ask a friend to help you brainstorm.

Be open to change. “Sometimes we hold on to a mindset that says there is only one path forward, and if we’re not on that path there’s something wrong,” Howes said. But remember that linear trajectories are rare—and might not lead to much growth or success. Try to view change as an opportunity to flex your creativity muscles and find unique, even more productive solutions.

Read biographies. This might seem like an unrelated tip, but biographies typically focus on “how people overcome hardship and unexpected challenges and are better for it,” Howes said. Biographies remind us that we’re not alone in our struggles, and we can channel our pain into something positive. Howes suggested checking out the biographies of Maya Angelou, Mother Theresa, Alan Turing (The Enigma), and Louis Zamperini (Unbroken).

Adapting is hard. After all, challenging situations are just that: challenging. They’re daunting and overwhelming. They can trigger a range of uncomfortable, contradictory emotions.

Let yourself feel these emotions—and face that change head on, Howes said. It just might “open up a new and wonderful area of life to you.”

7 Expert Tips for Adapting to Life’s Curveballs

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2020). 7 Expert Tips for Adapting to Life’s Curveballs. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 6 Feb 2020 (Originally: 6 Feb 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 6 Feb 2020
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