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Deal Better with Hard Times

one person consoles another who is looking down, clearly upset

How coping tools help

At some point in our lives, most of us will face times that are extra stressful or that even shake us to our core. At those times, having strong coping strategies can make a huge difference.

Of course, exercising, focusing on your spiritual life , and getting enough rest—and all the other Live Your Life Well tools—can be great supports in difficult situations. Other techniques can be particularly useful in dealing with tough times.

The research shows that:

  • People who spent time writing about a difficult event had better health and less depression. Writers' grades even improved, and they found jobs more quickly
  • People facing stress felt less depressed after problem-solving
  • People who often focus on the positives in their lives are less upset by difficult memories

Ways to deal better

Write It Out

Did you ever write a nasty e-mail when you felt angry but then deleted it? Chances are you still felt better though you didn't send it.

If you've suffered an upsetting event, writing about it can actually make you feel better. That's in part because writing organizes your thoughts, which makes the experience feels less chaotic. Writing also can offer you an emotional release, insight into yourself and the feeling that you can file the problem away.

Some thoughts to get started writing:

  • Set aside 15 minutes a day for a few days to write about the event and how it made you feel
  • Don't worry about grammar or artistry. This is just for you.
  • Stick with it. At first writing about an upsetting experience may be painful, but over time it can help you get past the upset. Keep in mind, though, that if yours is an especially disturbing event, like rape or domestic violence, you might want to do this work with a therapist.

Tackle Your Problems

If you're dealing with a stressful situation, don't stew in self-pity or waste energy pointing blame at someone else. That just makes you feel less powerful. Instead, it makes sense to:

  • Write down the problems involved. On paper they may seem more manageable than swirling in your head. 
  • List as many solutions as possible. For now, silence your internal judge. You can reject options later.
  • Assess your list. Try asking yourself how you'd like this situation to end. Which options likely will get you there? You also can weigh pros and cons.
  • Accept reasonably good solutions. Research suggests that searching for a perfect option breeds disappointment.
  • Once you pick some solutions, break them into reasonable chunks and make a concrete plan. You might set yourself some specific deadlines too.
  • Don't get discouraged if the first solution you try doesn't pan out. Try another one on your list.

Read more problem-solving tips and find a worksheet to get you organized.

Shift Your Thinking

How you think about a problem affects both how much it upsets you and how well you tackle it. I possible, it pays to shift your mind away from negative thoughts or excessive worries. Try these suggestions:

  • Ask yourself how realistic your worry is. Our imaginations can take us into situations that may never develop.
  • Set aside "worry" time each day. Then whenever a negative thought intrudes, tell yourself to wait until the set time. You may feel better by then.
  • Focus on the good aspects of your life.
  • Look at tough times as an opportunity to learn, grow or improve your situation. Maybe you've seen how supportive your friends are or learned how strong you can be in a tough time.

Get Support

Sometimes some basic help can make a big difference.

  • Ask someone to give you a hand with any pressing tasks if you're overextended. You can reciprocate at a quieter time.
  • Don't be afraid to ask for advice. No one knows everything.
  • Get emotional support. Crying, sharing your frustrations or otherwise venting can release tension, relieve stress and help you move on. Consider getting professional help if you need it.


Reviewed by Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, a University of California, Riverside psychology professor and author of The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want (Penguin Press).