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How to Stop a Setback From Ruining Your Day

You can't control what happens, but you can control how you react!


Art Credit: Jonathan Yacoub

I recently had a morning that was like most other mornings. Sure, the kids were a handful and my husband left his wet towel on the bed (again). But that didn't really matter—in fact, as I sat in traffic, the thought crossed my mind that this could turn out to be a great day.

Then annoyed honking woke me from my reverie. A white Honda with black rims came up behind me, seemingly out of nowhere. As I inched forward, the driver honked and inched closer. When traffic cleared to my right, the car veered fast around me and exited off the road. But not without first giving me a silent look of death.

I stared at my steering wheel wondering what I had done wrong. Maybe I cut him off by accident. Maybe I was driving too slow. When something like this happens, I tend to blame myself first. Then I brush off the blame—andI get defensive. I convince myself that the other person was just being a huge jerk. What was his deal? I continue on my way a little less happy than I was before the incident.

It’s not the most effective response, nor is it the most healthy. In fact, brain studies show a link between negative emotions and lowered immunity. And yet, when the little things in our days start piling up—from a broken appliance to a sharp shove on the subway—it can be hard to remind ourselves not to let it get to us. But people with a pattern of brain activity associated with positive emotions also show the best response to the flu vaccine. So when on the verge of letting little annoyances ruin your day, try practicing positive habits. It could make you more than happy—they could make you healthier, too!

Here’s how to stop the negative and go about your day on a high note:


Recall what may have happened (as far as you know) from a third-person perspective. “She was driving. The car behind her kept honking. Then it left.” Do this out loud or in your head. This method takes you out of the situation by forcing you to view it from neutral ground. You’re no longer the victim or the culprit. The incident becomes just another event that could have happened to anyone. You’ll feel less bad for yourself and less angry at the other person or situation.


If observing the situation objectively doesn’t help you get over how the situation is making you feel, there’s no sense in trying to run away from it. Admit the reality of your feelings to yourself or a friend. Again, you can say it out loud or in your head. Emotions that you can’t identify or that you refuse to define have more power to pile up and blow up. When you admit that you’re angry because you’re hungry or that you’re grumpy for whatever reason, you become aware of the power you have to control those emotions. Once you can identify the feeling, you can own it. And you can move on.


Nothing breeds resilience like coping with unfortunate events.

Use difficult situations to train your resilience. Practice a productive response to your reaction. Instead of seething behind the steering wheel, turn to your favorite radio station. Play soothing music. Pray. No one likes to get stressed out. No one feels privileged by rudeness. But these situations are the ones that help you gain better control over your emotions. Over time, you’ll get so used to finding solutions that your brain will change the way it reacts to similar “red alert” situations.


A study on how humor therapy affects patients in a nursing home gave patients nine to 12 weekly humor therapy sessions for 26 weeks. The study found that humor therapy decreased patients’ agitation and increased their happiness. Rather than acting on your negative feelings, you can act to change the way you feel. Acting happy won’t change the situation, but it will make you feel better. Scientists have experimented with faking a smile and found that it decreases heart rate and stress. So grin and bear it. Or go for a walk. You’ll be able to clear your head and get in some exercise. When you get back, you’ll have gained your perspective back too.