FBI Tips On How To Survive Setbacks

June 15th, 2014 by LaRae Quy

I had been assigned to my first Field Office for less than one year when I was unexpectedly transferred across the country. The FBI likes to see how their agents survive setbacks, land on their feet, and come out ready for more.


We’ve all started over in a different environment, lost a job, or had a relationship fail. These experiences leave us grappling for a lifeline as we attempt to survive setbacks. We feel the tug of war between our thinking brain and our emotional brain. It feels as though each brain has it’s own agenda, and at some point a certain amount of paralysis can set in.  

Different parts of the brain fight for control. Technically, this is what happens in post-traumatic stress disorder. The prefrontal cortex of the cerebral thinking brain loses its ability to regulate the emotional limbic system.

Life knocks us down and puts in a position of needing to survive setbacks. Our emotions often become overly sensitized to fear and danger. While we may not experience the full impact of PTSD, we feel enough discomfort. It affects our ability to make the best decisions for ourselves.

Many of us go to therapy or take medicine to remove our symptoms when we’re feeling distress. But that does nothing more than lecture the thinking brain or suppress the emotional limbic system.

Instead, we can develop a stronger mind when we find ways to get both brains to cooperate equally. Mental toughness is the ability to experience discomfort yet still feel comfortable.

Understanding how to control our different brains when we’ve been knocked down is an essential component of mental toughness. 

Here are 4 tips on how to survive setbacks so you can bounce back when life strikes a heavy blow:

TIP #1: Start With A Minor Source of Uneasiness

Identify a minor source of uneasiness that clearly places you in a discomfort zone—but not in a panic mode. When you do, you begin to train your emotional and thinking brains to communicate with one another. Start small so it doesn’t put your emotional limbic system into survival mode. However, it does need to be big enough to generate a physical reaction.

For example, if you fear public speaking, the thought of your performance can cause palms to sweat and heart rate to increase. These physiological responses are triggered by your fear response—which is housed in your limbic system. Start with a small group so you can experience the physiological responses. Prepare your talk and deliver it confidence. Next time, speak in front of a larger group, etc.

TIP #2: Call Attention To Where The Fear Is Coming From

The limbic system is so powerful because we often have a visceral reaction to a situation before we have a conscious awareness of it. This is called gut reaction.

Studies have shown that we can use our thinking brain to control our limbic system if we do two things:

  1. recognize what is happening
  2. intentionally tell ourselves that there is no reason to react with fear

By forcing ourselves to use our cognitive function, we are activating the prefrontal lobe of the cerebral cortex which is responsible for generating positive thoughts. Interestingly enough, when we call attention to our fears we are able to see them in a different, and often more objective, light.

The longer our fear lurks in the darkness, the greater its chances of growing and sabotaging our efforts to move forward. Do not hesitate to pinpoint your fear and spend a little time with it. The more you get to know it, the better you can control it.

TIP #3: Get Comfortable With Discomfort

The secret to learning how to survive setbacks is learning how to get comfortable with discomfort. 

If you can walk on scorching hot beach sand as you make your way to the cool water of the ocean, you’ve got the gist of a strong mind. The discomfort is there, you are aware of it, and it does not feel great but it is co-existing with the pleasure of a day on the beach.

As the discomfort increases, and you experience anxiety, stress or pain, you begin to see your experience as more absolute—you are either comfortable or miserable. While there will be miserable moments in your life, not all of them need to trigger fear.

Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” – Buddhist proverb

Once you are able to control your fear by using your thinking cerebral brain, the limbic system simmers down so you can deal with your situation and make decisions utilizing both brains.

TIP #4: Label Your Discomfort

Studies have found that when you call your emotion by name, it lessens the limbic system’s activity. When you accurately identify and describe your discomfort, you lessen the power of the fear associated with it.

Similar research has found that it is important to limit your description to one or two words, however. If you engage in a long soliloquy about your emotion, it will only increase your response to it and produce adverse effects. 

I have found that by following these four steps, I can increase my tolerance for discomfort which enhances my ability to survive setbacks. 


© 2014 LaRaeQuy. All rights reserved.

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Author of “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths” and “Secrets of a Strong Mind.” 

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6 Responses to “FBI Tips On How To Survive Setbacks”

  1. Karin Hurt says:

    I really like the concept of training your brain though small discomforts. It’s such an important way to build confidence and create a sense of calm. Terrific post.

  2. LaRae – Great post! I love the beach analogy! Simple, easy to understand and so powerful when you apply it to more challenging situations!

  3. Loved the post and found it really interesting about how we can actually control the different parts of our brains!

    Fascinated with the idea of “Get comfortable with discomfort”. It makes sense that if we know something good lies ahead we can endure the pain or frustration. I know for me that sometimes when I am designing a new program and it’s a topic I need to do a lot of research, I feel uneasy. But taking action is what has always helped me move past anxiety. Just writing and then projecting how the facilitation piece (the fun piece for me) will go gets me through.

    Thanks LaRae!

    • LaRae Quy says:

      Great points, Terri.

      The ability to acknowledge discomfort but not let it rule our behavior is key. Otherwise, we hit a roadblock and we give up because it’s uncomfortable to keep moving forward.

      Again, another good reason we should always be stretching our skills and talents…so when we do hit a roadblock we’re not surprised by how it feels 🙂

  4. Alli Polin says:

    I learn something every time I stop by your blog and today is no exception!

    It’s interesting, because as parents, we can help children develop mental toughness too. Your 4th point reminds me of an important strategy to get a child to name what they’re really feeling (and causing their freak out) to help them see what’s really going on and make another choice. Learning to name the emotion fueling our discomfort is a skill that helps us to get at what’s underneath our surface reaction.

    Thanks, LaRae!

    • LaRae Quy says:

      Thanks, Alli! I appreciate your kind words.

      We need to start teaching our kids mental toughness at an early age. I know it’s tempting to protect them from adversity and disappointments, but when we equip them with the confidence to meet their own challenges head on, we’re giving them skills that will last a lifetime.

      And yes, just calling something for what it really is helps people understand it better. Too often, we try to repress or suppress our feelings because we’ve been taught we shouldn’t feel that way. But that IS how we feel, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s wrong or not; we can’t try to hide it or pretend it doesn’t exit. Acknowledge it, and then work on why it’s producing discomfort.

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