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How to Deflect Unexpected Stress

No matter what problems we are dealing with already, life keeps going. And, occasionally, it pitches unexpected and sudden stress right at all of us. A stress curveball can throw pre-planned coping strategies out of balance. There is little time to re-plan or even adjust to the news and what you must do instead. Sometimes, extreme emergencies arise. Accidents, injuries, bad news can hit without notice, and consequences can be severe, but snow and ice storms, delayed travel, and less serious circumstances can affect you or those you love also. I hope this doesn’t happen. We all do. But there is a way to at least minimize the difficulties that come “out of the blue.”

Stress has been defined as what happens within us when expectations are unmet or when something happens that is not expected. Making the best plans possible is a good start to finding balance in any situation, but another layer of protection can help control or deflect thoughts, emotions and physical reactions you might later regret. Science now tells us the fight or flight response has a third component. In some situations, the human body instructs us to freeze. Thinking ahead can help minimize the detrimental effects of all of those.

My mother put it another way. Expect the best, but prepare for the worst. Have a Plan B and C. If things go well, you can relax and follow Plan A. If not, you at least have an idea of what you can do under stress, and you’re not blindsided as much. Don’t expect to cover everything. List the basics, and focus on how you can handle any kind of stress whenever it arises.

Traveling over the holidays? Think about options in case your flight is delayed. Ahead of time, look up your airline’s policies on delays, cancellations, and things that might be available, like hotel vouchers. Make sure your phone is charged (don’t forget your charger) and has all the numbers you will need to contact family, friends, insurance companies, rental car locations and so on. Medications or supplies for babies or young children are important. If you’re boarding your pet(s), ask about how you can handle emergencies or extended stays. Perhaps a friend can pick up your pet and care for it in his home for the extra days. Arrive at the airport early as crowds might make lines longer. It helps to know you can survive whatever comes.  

If you are traveling by car, include an emergency kit in your trunk with common supplies for first aid, blankets, extra water, and whatever related equipment might dig you out of the snow or mud (cat litter, a small shovel, windshield scraper, maps, a car cell phone charger, and extra boots, for example). Even at your location, remember you can cope. Check on weather forecasts to know the weather there. You can escape, if you need to, by changing your plans. 

Mentally, meeting a stressful situation is a challenge, but understanding that fact can help with preparations and in real-time situations. The faster heart rate, sharper mental focus, and tensed muscles during short periods of stress can help get that car unstuck or decide what’s best to do in an emergency. Chronic stress is different and can wear down body and mind. It is important to understand both types and find ways to manage each. Negatives to long-term stress are impacted memory, physical health, and issues like depression and anxiety. Get professional help with these.

Maybe your plans must be altered for something much smaller. Cooking a big meal only to find several guests cancel or burning the turkey beyond recognition can be upsetting. Use a journal or notebook to write out how things can go wrong and what you can do about each of them. Don’t dwell on the negative, but add a touch of humor and post the menu for your favorite take-out restaurant on the refrigerator. Knowing you can start a new tradition if you want to can deflect a lot of problems. Staying relaxed can make everyone around you feel less stress, too.

Managing your time and diet can go a long way toward helping you handle stress. Taking on less can do more. Plan A doesn’t have to be strenuous. You don’t have to do everything people ask you to do. Write that down. It’s not easy to say “no,” but putting your own wellbeing first is important. Prioritize. Create a one or two sentence answer for declining things that are too much for you to do. Something simple but clear might be “I need to focus on what I already have going, so I can’t commit to anything else.” If you can help out and want to, get the correct information and be clear on what you can and cannot do.

Plan well, and get plenty of rest before a big event. Exercise and relaxation techniques can help with that if nerves are a problem. If you can’t get to sleep because of the excitement (often looks like nervousness), keep a Worry Book and pen by your bed. Jot down any thought that bothers you. The Worry Book will keep it safe while you sleep. You can deal with whatever you wrote when you wake up, refreshed and ready to go.

Most of all, allow yourself to enjoy the good times.

How to Deflect Unexpected Stress


Jan McDaniel

Jan McDaniel is a writer from the Southeastern United States. A former newspaper reporter and college English instructor, she writes a blog column ("This New Life") for the Alliance of Hope for suicide loss survivors and serves as an AOH forum moderator and Steward Group Leader. On her website, she writes about her journey through traumatic grief after the suicide of her husband of over thirty years and how she found survival, connection and hope: www.wayforhope.weebly.com.


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APA Reference
McDaniel, J. (2019). How to Deflect Unexpected Stress. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 27, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/how-to-deflect-unexpected-stress/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 23 Dec 2019 (Originally: 23 Dec 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 23 Dec 2019
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.