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Three Steps for Responding Mindfully to Difficult Situations

by Sean Szeles, LPC

When confronted with perceived threats, our bodies are wired to go into fight, flight, or freeze mode. Grounded in the emotional part of the brain, this response can send us into a spiral that turns small stressors, such as an annoying e-mail or a spat with a loved one, into a perceived catastrophe.

Recently, I’ve been listening to some mindfulness classes from the people at 10% Happier. From their exceptionally helpful content on stress-management, here are three tools I’ve picked up for responding to a perceived threat or difficult situation:

Shift Perspective

When our emotional brain senses danger, our thoughts speed up and begin to feed us negative self-talk, such as “you’re not good enough” or “you never do anything right”. When we’re in fight, flight or freeze mode, it’s easy to believe these comments, even though they likely don’t align with reality.

Thus, one tool I use to keep an emotional reaction in-check is to ask this simple question, “If your best friend was in this situation, what would you say to them? Typically, the response is much kinder than the automatic, negative thought. Further, when asking this question, it’s good to notice how the shift in perspective makes you feel. Practicing self-compassion in the face of difficulties de-escalates the emotional part of the brain and creates space for other types of thinking.

Approach rather than Avoid

Avoidance is a common initial response to stressors. However, as we avoid, the stressors continue to loom until we become overwhelmed by the growing problem that just gets scarier the more we attempt to avoid it (what I call the monster under the bed). The solution? Move toward problems, rather than away from them. Lean into the discomfort this may bring, and break the issue into smaller pieces. Rather than going through a laundry list of complaints to solve a large problem, come up with one small thing you can do daily to chip away at the problem.

Find an Anchor

Examining a problem doesn’t stop it from being overwhelming. However, having an anchor can help us to feel supported as we approach rather than avoid our stressors. By anchor, I mean something that keeps you grounded as you explore the challenges you face. This can be a person you trust, a mindfulness practice such as meditation, a spiritual practice such as prayer, or a value such as empathy or kindness. Studies consistently show that, if we live a life aligned with values, our stress decreases. Thus, find an anchor to hold onto when the waters get rough.

In conclusion, stressors are normal and you are going to encounter them, we all are. Further, some of these stressors are going to activate your fight, flight, or freeze response, many do. However, by shifting, approaching, and anchoring, you may find yourself navigating and managing your stress in increasingly healthy and productive ways.


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