Stay Calm with Psychiatrist’s “Rule of 12” When Things Go Wrong

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What do you do when things go wrong? Do you immediately spiral into panic, imagining everything is wrong? Do you get angry, yell, curse, and blame? Do you get physical—hitting or throwing things?

It’s natural to get upset when things don’t go as planned. The feeling of uncertainty, disappointment, and being out of control can disturb even the most patient person. Yet venting frustration ultimately doesn’t change the problem, and, in some cases, it may even cause new ones!

Whether you are planning a special occasion, a vacation, or your day – expect that something will not go as planned. Click To Tweet

That’s why it’s great to have a strategy to better roll with life’s upsets, mishaps, and unexpected problems. Psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Amen of Amen Clinics employs a simple strategy he calls the “Rule of 12.”

To practice it, Dr. Amen says you must fully accept that things often don’t go as planned in life. Then, make a decision not to get upset until after 12 things have gone wrong.

Additionally, by becoming mentally strong with the following constructive coping skills, you’ll be less likely to lose your cool the next time things go wrong.


  1. Accept that problems happen.

Whether you’re planning a special occasion, a vacation, or just your average day, expect that something will go wrong. Even with the best planning, there can always be an “x” factor that is beyond our control.

Expecting perfection is a setup for disappointment.

It’s more helpful to set expectations based on the reality that problems will occur. That way you can more readily adjust to the dynamic conditions of life.

Remember, until you get to 12 problems in a day, it’s just business as usual!

  1. Identify your feelings and thoughts.

When plans are disrupted or changed suddenly, it will often cause anxious feelings, panic attacks, frustration, anger issues, irritation, disappointment, or other negative feelings.

One of the most constructive things you can do is to pause and recognize your feelings, allowing yourself to feel them fully.

If you’re particularly upset, it’s also helpful to examine your thoughts. Is there a thought that is adding stress to the situation?

It could be an automatic negative thought (ANT) that is not accurate. Maybe you want to blame yourself or your partner for the mishap.

Identifying your emotions and thoughts is the first step in helping you to regulate them and more easily move into acceptance and a positive mindset.

  1. Calm the fire.

When things go wrong, your “fight-or-flight” stress response—part of the autonomic nervous system—can get activated. Feeling jittery, sweaty palms, a quickened heart rate, or feeling teary are common signs that your nervous system is on high alert.

Before you can begin to cope with stressful circumstances, take a moment to calm your nervous system. Take a few deep breaths. Drink a glass of water. Do whatever allows you to take the upset down a notch.

In this way, you will be using your prefrontal cortex (responsible for judgment, planning, and decision-making) to signal your body to calm down.

Mental health experts call this emotional regulation—the opposite of losing it! Once your stress response has settled down, you can then better handle what’s happening and find positive options and solutions.  

  1. Be flexible.

When things go wrong, be flexible. People who are resilient tend to have flexible thinking according to research. Accept that your plan may have some deviations. Sometimes, things can turn out even better when the plan goes differently!

If you can, stay open to other options and the input of other people. There are many ways to solve a problem. If you can practice flexible thinking, you’ll be more likely to adapt and maybe even enjoy the unexpected.

  1. Stay positive and focus on solutions.

Imagine you’re returning from a wonderful day at the beach with a friend and you run into traffic. You can see that up ahead there’s an accident, but the road is fully blocked.

There’s no other option except to wait until the road is cleared. You immediately feel a sense of being trapped, anger, and frustration.

Here’s how you can stay positive and focused on solutions.

Take a moment to be with your feelings. This will make it easier to accept it even though you don’t like it.

Then look for ways to make the most of the time. Perhaps you and your friend take turns picking songs to listen to or take the opportunity to talk in depth on an interesting topic. If you’re alone, you might call someone or listen to your favorite podcast or an audiobook.

Research shows that keeping your mind focused on something positive can calm anxious feelings. Learning to think positively and find solutions is associated with greater life satisfaction and resilience as well, according to a recent 2023 study.

A positive mindset sees “problems” as opportunities. This is true even if the opportunity is simply to accept a disappointment, loss, or change of plans and trust there will be something of value from the experience.

  1. Ask for help.

When things go wrong, ask for help. If you lose your keys, ask your spouse to help you find them. Or, if your car doesn’t start, ask your neighbor for a ride.

If your problem is something larger and more difficult, seek the counsel of a trusted friend, colleague, or family member. They may help you strategize a solution, offer a helpful perspective, or provide moral support that makes you feel better.

Social support has been shown to reduce stress levels and boost resilience in studies. We also tend to underestimate how much people truly want to help. Recent research shows they are happy to give it.

For more pervasive issues, reaching out to a mental health professional can help you build emotional regulation and flexible thinking. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you transform negative thoughts.


When things go sideways, in addition to taking constructive steps, it’s equally important to avoid destructive ones that contribute to emotional dysregulation, such as:


The following habits can help you eliminate routine problems before they happen and better cope with the ones beyond your control:

  • Get restful sleep. You think better and make better decisions when you’re well rested.
  • Eat a brain-healthy diet and avoid refined carbohydrates. Balanced blood sugar supports better brain function. Diets high in sugar and refined carbohydrates compromise brain function and mood, according to a Harvard Health online report, making emotional regulation harder.
  • Give yourself extra time to be places or to prepare for important projects or events. Rushing increases stress levels. (Think of how much kinder you are on the road when you’re not rushing!)
  • Don’t drink alcohol. Alcohol compromises brain function, causing you to make poor decisions, be forgetful, and have slower reaction times, and more. Many problems go away when you don’t drink alcohol.
  • Be organized. Keep a calendar. Write things down. Plan ahead. The more organized you are, the more likely it is that you will head off problems before they start.

Next time things don’t go according to plan, remember Dr. Amen’s Rule of 12 and roll with it!

Anger issues, anxiety, emotional dysregulation, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

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