Coping With the Unexpected

Written by Rachel H.

November 7, 2022

My vacation in Yosemite was going along smoothly, hardly a hitch in any of my travel plans, and despite a rainy day in the forecast, only a little drizzle fell from the sky. I had hiked over 45 miles in four days, taken in some breathtakingly gorgeous views, and was just about to settle into the less physically active portion of my trip – a five-day songwriting retreat.

And that’s when everything went sideways.

Within an hour of getting dropped off at the retreat center, I decided to take a little walk. As I meandered down a paved pathway, I turned my head back to admire the outside view of the cozy cabin-like room I’d be staying in for the next several days. All of a sudden, I stumbled off of the path, lost my footing, and was on the ground. 

I’ve twisted my ankle a few times in my life, but I knew pretty soon that this was something more. A trip to urgent care, and then to a tiny ER in the remote California wilderness confirmed what I feared – I had broken my ankle.

It certainly wasn’t what I’d planned. Suddenly, I was completely dependent upon near-strangers (incredibly kind people, thank goodness) to help me with just about everything. Luckily, I was able to stay on for the retreat and lean into the non-physical activity of songwriting. That was the easy part. 

Coming home and facing the uncertain (Will I need surgery? How the hell do I get around a narrow, three story row home on crutches? Will my clients be OK switching to virtual sessions?) felt much harder. 

I was plunged into a battle between resistance and acceptance. Self-pity and self-kindness. Determination and frustration. 

It’s all valid.

As I write this post, I’m still in the early stages of my healing and much remains unknown. Those battles are still going on inside of me. But I’m also finding moments of spaciousness, stillness, curiosity, even gratitude. It’s gotten me thinking a lot about how to cope with the unexpected, which can be particularly challenging for folks struggling with anxiety (avoidance of uncertainty is a huge factor in perpetuating anxious cycles of thought and feeling). 

So what can an anxious soul do when the unexpected happens?

Allow all of the feelings

When we try to control how we’re feeling about an unfortunate turn of events in our lives, we create resistance, which is sort of like adding another layer of pain on top of the pain that’s already there. 

When something unexpected happens that significantly affects present and future plans, you’re probably going to feel a lot of things. Disbelief. Anger. Sadness. Frustration. Hopelessness. Honor this as a form of grieving, and remember that grief is not linear. There will be ups and downs. 

Practice being with rather than in your feelings if things feel too overwhelming. You might visualize the feeling as a part of yourself, give it a name, perhaps even a face if not a shape and size. What would it be like to sit with this part of you that’s struggling rather than try to push it away?

Focus on the things within your control

There’s nothing like an unwelcome and unexpected turn of events to remind us that there is a lot that we don’t have control over. This can leave us feeling totally out of control, and helpless to do anything to change or adapt to our new situation. 

Even when things go left when you were planning to go right, there are always things that fall within your window of control. Even if your choices or resources are limited, you can always choose your response. 

What’s within your control? Perhaps it’s the people you choose to reach out to, the content you choose to consume online, or the food that you’re nourishing your body with. Focus on that, and know that this is an opportunity to practice surrender around those things you can’t control.

Look for the learning/growth opportunities 

This does not mean that we have to approve of what happened. Sometimes really terrible, senseless things happen and leaning into phrases such as “everything happens for a reason” is a form of toxic positivity. 

It can, however, be helpful to get curious about the learning opportunities that you might harness from the unexpected event(s). These might not be obvious, and may take some time to notice. 

For example, my broken ankle has taught me a lot about humility, is a reminder of human fragility, connection, and interconnectedness. It’s also made really clear just how inaccessible so many spaces are. Those are lessons I want to continue to take with me and grow from even after I’m up and walking again. 

Don’t try to go it alone

If there’s ever a time to lean into your support network, it’s now. Be intentional about who you ask for support, but don’t be afraid to ask for it. Human beings are meant to be in connection with one another, and in moments of crisis, grief and transition this becomes even more abundantly clear.

Experiencing the unexpected can feel like an upending of your life at times. Talking to a therapist in Philadelphia who can help guide you through the unknown is also a wonderful option.

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