6 stages to deal with a difficult situation

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When you’re dealing with a problem, it’s normal to not know how to approach it. Here’s a step-by-step process to help.

There are usually 6 stages to dealing with a difficult situation. They can last different amounts of time depending on the situation and the people involved. You might go back a stage, but that doesn’t mean you’re starting from scratch again! Those steps back are part of the process.


Knowing what stage you’re in can help you understand what’s going on and figure out what you need in the moment.


Did you know that these stages can also be helpful when you’re trying to help a friend?


Stage 1: Uncertainty

At this stage, you aren’t even sure if you have something to worry about or a problem. You might downplay your struggles and the consequences because you’re not even aware of them. You don’t really want to “see” the problem and you aren’t ready to do anything about it.


Learn how to help a friend who is at this stage here.


Stage 2: Confusion

At this point, you’re starting to ask yourself questions about your situation and you’re seeing signs that you need more information, but you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for or how to change things. You might figure that your problem will go away on its own.


It can be really hard to accept that you have a problem. You might feel sad, angry, or worried. Those feelings are completely normal, and even useful. Take the time to sit with them; this will help you understand them, what’s going on, and eventually take action.


What can help: Asking yourself questions like, “How am I feeling?” and “What am I experiencing because of that?” Talking about your struggles with friends and family, or doing some research, can be a way to get answers and find ways to put what you’re feeling into words.


Learn how to help a friend who is at this stage here.


Stage 3: Planning

By now, you’re aware of the issue. You understand what you need to do and what needs to change. You want things to change and feel like change is possible. Basically, you want to improve and get yourself out of the situation.


You might feel scared or have doubts (like, “Is my plan really going to work?”), but you’ll probably feel determined, too. Make sure your goals are achievable! Take baby steps! It’s important to set realistic goals—it lets you enjoy a series of small victories that gradually lead to a complete change. But above all, remember that it’s normal for things to take time.


What can help: Making an action plan with the step(s) you are going to take to change the situation. It gives you a solid foundation to build on. For example: Who are you going to talk to? Where are you going to look for help? What are you going to do next? When? How? It can also be a good idea to figure out what to do if things don’t go according to plan.


People you trust (like friends, family members, or counsellors) can also give you advice and tips for dealing with your problem.


Learn how to help a friend who is at this stage here.


Stage 4: Action

By now, even if you have worries, you feel confident you can solve the problem because you’ve carefully examined the situation and found solutions that work for you. You also recognize that the change you’re trying to make can sometimes come with downsides.


For example, if you decide to break up with a toxic partner, you might feel sad that it’s over even though you know that it’s the right decision.


Learn how to help a friend who is at this stage here.


Stage 5: Progress

You’ve changed the situation, and now you need to keep it up. You have the tools to do it, though—you’re confident you can take on the challenges, you know what helps, and you have people you can turn to if you need help. At this stage, you’re seeing changes and want to keep them going.


You might have a “relapse” or take a step backwards, because change is difficult to continue. You might feel frustrated or discouraged about the situation, have doubts about your process, or feel down or unmotivated if things are not changing as quickly as you would have wanted. Don’t lose hope, though! Solving a problem can be a roller coaster ride. Those feelings are normal. They don’t mean you’re failing, they just mean you’re learning and growing.


What can help: Don’t be afraid to reach out to professionals or the people around you if you’re feeling discouraged or unmotivated. Things are hard sometimes. You’ve already made amazing progress towards feeling better. Your support system is there to remind you that you’re doing the right thing and that you can do this.


Stage 6: Success!

You’ve solved the problem or handled the situation. You can look back at your journey and the stages you’ve gone through to reach your solution. You’ve learned things about yourself and have developed effective strategies for handling other situations. You might feel free and proud of yourself.