Sometimes, life can feel unfair—not just mildly inconvenient but, like, really unfair. We have all been there. Maybe your offer for an apartment didn’t get accepted. Or you got rejected from the job you really wanted. Or months of diet and exercise are “undone” by an unexpected injury or week of stress-eating. If several of these events happen close together, the unfairness of it all can feel overwhelming. You tried so hard! You prepared for so long! You replay the situation over and over again and think to yourself “this shouldn’t be happening to me!”
Even if you consider yourself an easy-going person who is an expert at “not sweating the small stuff,” it can be hard to shake the feelings of distress when something truly discouraging happens. But have you ever really thought about why “letting go” of these emotions is so difficult? If you’re like most people, your brain probably automatically reassures that it’s perfectly reasonable to get upset. Its helpful voice chimes in to say “you should be upset, anybody would be upset! Let me get rid of any lingering doubt by replaying the scene for you again. And again. And once more for good measure.” Sound familiar?
Listen, it’s totally okay to acknowledge your emotions and feel angry, or sad, or irritated. However, ruminating as a way of dealing with situations doesn’t usually feel too great. Replaying a situation in your head is the brain’s “helpful” way of giving you the perception of control over a situation that is causing anxiety or uncertainty. But the more tightly you hold on to these feelings, the tighter their grip becomes on you. This can leave you feeling constantly overworked and overwhelmed by anxiety, despair, distress and frustration. Who’s really in control now?
There are actions you can take to regain power and control over those overwhelming feelings. Here are a few general tips:
- Put distance between the situation and your anxious thoughts or feelings. Take a step back and acknowledge the circumstance from a neutral point of view by simply telling yourself “I’m getting myself worked up because I wish this wasn’t happening. This anxiety isn’t serving any purpose.”
- Accept what is happening instead of wishing for a different circumstance. Remember, avoiding feelings by thinking “this shouldn’t be happening to me” only feeds into your anxiety. By staying in the present moment, you gain power and control.
- To better handle frustration and stress, change your perception. Think of difficulties as challenges or opportunities instead of threats. “This happened because I took a risk instead of staying in my comfort zone. The outcome wasn’t ideal but I might have felt even worse if I had never tried at all.”
- Change what you can in the moment. Don’t just hope that the situation ends and that your feelings eventually go away. When you decide not to ruminate, you free up mental energy that can be spent focusing on action steps. Try to identify one simple step you can take in the moment to improve your situation, whether it be applying for a new job or meal-prepping for the week ahead.
If you still have difficulty avoiding the “emotional build-up” of stress and anxiety, you might consider seeking mental health counseling for assistance in problem-solving and letting go of past anger. Take comfort in knowing that with practice and little self-compassion, you can find relief from chronic voice that says “this shouldn’t be happening!”
– Carolyn Moriarty, LPC