Getting Back on Track After a Major Setback

Recovering from a setback or disappointment can take longer than we'd like to admit. Leaning on coaching techniques and learning how to build resilience helps!

The Everything Life Coaching Podcast, featuring Lumia Coaching founders John Kim and Noelle Cordeaux, is a deep dive into the experience and business of being a life coach. Subscribe to get new episodes weekly! Originally published in May 2020, this blog has been updated to include new resources and information.

How To Recover From A Setback

Every now and then, life throws you a curveball and you experience a disruption to "life as usual." Sometimes the setback is so massive that you need to make additional changes in order to adjust. Other times, it’s just enough to shake you up and remind you that nothing in life is guaranteed.

Setbacks happen, and they’re not the enemy. While you may not be able to change the circumstance that knocked the wind out of you, you still have the ability to shape what happens next.

Setbacks hold their own purpose in the larger story of your life, which is to tap you on the shoulder and remind you to take notice of where you're at and where you'd like to be in the future.

Facing the Pain

When people experience negative emotions like fear, sadness, and loss, a very natural response is to avoid these feelings. This is also referred to as experiential avoidance. People go to incredible lengths to avoid discomfort and the sensations associated with feeling poorly. Suppression is the way your brain tries to reject bad news. And while avoidance may work in the short-term, it's generally not a winning strategy over the long-term.

Combating Avoidance

Our bodies are ecosystems. We need physical equilibrium in our bodies in order to reach a peak state where we can access new ideas and see brighter possibilities. What this means is that when we're going through hard times, we have to tend to our mind and body in equal measure. 

Connect to your body. And by that, we mean actually feel it, not just think it. Because when you’re thinking, you’re in your ruminating brain. You’re playing through different scenarios, you’re calculating, you’re thinking about the past, you’re agitated and spinning. 

True mind and body connection requires that you accept your inner state. Rather than avoid yourself, try engaging compassionately with whatever adverse state you’re experiencing. Negative emotions are strong, and it can be very difficult to accept them. Avoidance offers a quick solution. But when we don’t allow ourselves to feel the pain, or when we numb it with food, alcohol, or other distractions, we only end up compounding our negative state.

Another way to combat avoidance is to acknowledge that, occasionally, you feel terrible. In this you're not unique - we all feel awful sometimes. What would it be like to learn how to sit in that discomfort, to tend and befriend it? One way to process difficult feelings is to move your body. Don’t stay stuck in your head, spinning. Get up, move around, change your physical environment. It could be as simple as taking a shower to reset, or going for a walk. Just fifteen minutes of cardiovascular exercise can also deliver a huge relief and positive chemical punch. 

We have senses for a reason. Using your physical senses grounds you in your physical reality. One way to access this is to really dig into your sensory experience and connect with the simple fact that you are a fragile human existing on a planet suspended in a vast universe. Lay off of social media, go for a walk, engage with other people, nature, animals, the world. It will help you get out of your head.

Coaching Techniques

As a life coach, it's likely that your clients will encounter setbacks from time to time. It's important to be ready to meet them in that space, with tools and techniques to help them overcome avoidance and continue moving forward.


Self soothing is a valuable skill and coping mechanism. To help your client self-sooth, try walking them through emotional expression. Really help them get those feelings out. By naming their feelings, it helps your client's prefrontal cortex kick into action. This limits the limbic brain's "fight, flight or freeze" response, which can help alleviate terrible feelings.

Also, pay close attention to your client’s behavior and self-regulation. See what coping mechanisms they usually draw upon. Are those mechanisms healthy, or avoidant? Talk more about how they’re self-soothing and work with your client to choose new ways to do it if the ones they typically rely upon aren't helpful. Breaking unhelpful patterns can also help build resilience.

Emotional regulation

It’s common for people to act out in times of stress. One coaching strategy that's useful when this happens is to remember that it’s physically impossible to hold both a positive and a negative thought at the same time. When you induce positive emotions, you can knock negative emotions out of your client's sphere. According to research by positive psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, when we broaden our thought repertoire with positive emotions, we're better at problem-solving. We also experience an increase in physical ability and coordination.

So how might this theory apply to your work with coaching clients? Some broaden-and-build interventions might include:

  • Mindset shifts
  • Building positive experiences to replace negative ones
  • Cultivating self-compassion
  • Guided meditation & breathing exercises
  • Gratitude practices

Take action

When we encounter a setback, we still have the capacity for problem-solving. Rather than avoiding or ruminating, we have the option to either strategize and plan, or seek new information. These are assets readily available to each of us at all times. As a coach, you can help your client shift into problem solving mode by inviting them to consider the various ways they can seek information to help them move through the setback and regain a sense of self efficacy. Some suggestions you can make include reading, observing, etc. 

The value here is that we’re putting facts over feelings. It might help your client to check in, and ask "Is this a feeling or a fact?" Because when things have gone wrong, we often feel stuck with these icky feelings. But when we start problem-solving and information seeking, we’re actually soothing our nervous system because we’re taking control.

Consider available options

Encourage your client to look at their options. Even when it doesn’t feel like it, there always are other possibilities. Some of these include: surrender, reframe, or prioritize. This is where the Wheel of Life exercise can come in handy.

With this technique, you draw a circle and you turn it into a pizza with eight slices. You have your client write all the different areas of life that are important to them in those slices. This helps them realize that yes, there might be a setback in one area, but they actually have a whole full life to draw from when they’re sourcing their priorities.

Strengthen social resources

Having strong social connections is a top indicator of wellbeing. What this means is that when you have a supportive community around you, you're better able to weather the storms of life. One way you can support a client who's going through a hard time is to help them consider who in their network they can reach out to for support and connection.

To derive the benefits of social support, your client may actually have to tell other people that they are struggling. This requires bravery. And this is also why the coaching relationship is vital - as a coach, YOU are a part of their social support network. For some people, their coach may be one of the few safe spaces they can turn to when they need to process things that they may not be inclined to share with anybody else.

Want to Be A Coach?

One of our values at Lumia is that we dare to be different. Our life coaches ignore the expectations society tries to impose on them, and seek to live from their own truth instead. If you are ready to step into your power and you’d like a partner in the process, come check out Lumia Life Coach Training. Grounded in science, our ICF accredited program features authentic instructors, a robust curriculum, and business instruction to prepare you for liftoff.

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