A while back, I wrote a post about how to take a few minutes to jolt yourself out of a bad mood. Sometimes, though, we don’t have the luxury of removing ourselves from a situation. When your boss is chewing you out, customers are yelling at you, your kids are having a tantrum, or lots of things are happening at once, you can’t just walk away. In those situations, the natural physical and emotional response is an exponential increase of the stress reaction. Unfortunately, that is the opposite of what’s good for us in the moment. So what do we do in the middle of a stressful situation to try and keep ourselves even tempered and effective? Luckily, there are some tried and true, scientifically proven techniques that can help during those intense situations:
1) Focus on waiting it out
Remember that whatever is going on at the moment, it will end. The same way we push ourselves to physically endure the last quarter mile of a long run, we can mentally focus on a situational finish line. Looking forward helps us to feel more calm and collected when our current circumstances are less than ideal. This is especially important if you’re dealing with someone who’s pushing negativity at you, because usually taking immediate action only prolongs the interaction. If someone is highly emotional, trying to respond is not going to make the situation go away. Neuroscience has found that the more engaged the emotional part of our brain is, the less we are actually capable of thinking logically. Odds are that the person who is yelling, ranting, or having a meltdown is not going to respond to rationality until their emotions have run their course. It can be incredibly hard to let that happen, because our instinct is to try and defuse a situation, and we want to protect ourselves from our own emotional onslaught. However, waiting it out is almost always better in the long run…which means you need to try and keep your cool in the meantime. (For more on the interaction between emotion and logic, see this article from the Harvard Business Review.)
2) Breath slowly and deliberately
Our minds, bodies, and emotions are intertwined, and constantly influence each other. Taking control of those interconnected systems can allow us to better regulate our reactions to difficult situations. The natural physical response to stress and anxiety is to breath fast and shallowly. At the same time, our natural response to breathing fast and shallowly is to feel more stressed. See the problem? Physiologically, rapid breathing is intended to give us a burst of energy and allow us to push ourselves in a dangerous situation. However, when we aren’t reacting to physical danger, it just makes us feel sick, because of the flood of fight or flight chemicals our body is producing, but not actually using. (Here’s more detail on the stress response.) If you don’t watch your breathing, you get caught in a negative cycle. You’re anxious so you breathe fast, you breathe fast so you’re anxious, and so on. Slow, deliberate breathing decreases the physical stress triggers and also helps you to stay mentally and emotionally centered. Completely fill your lower lungs, causing your stomach to expand, and release all the air before exhaling again. It sounds simple, because it is, but the benefits are incredible. (For more information, and a few specific techniques, click here.)
3) Emotionally disengage
When stress gets overwhelming, sometimes you have to be able to emotionally pull back from the situation. Even if you can’t physically step away, you can create some mental distance to lessen the emotional impact. This involved focusing a small part of your attention on a logical mental task, without ignoring the situation in front of you. For example, you can mentally count odd numbers, or recite the alphabet backwards or mentally counting odd numbers. This forces the logical part of your brain to engage, and just like the more emotional you feel the less logical you become, the more you think logically the better you can control your emotions. You’ll still be present and participating, but you will feel more in control and less emotionally invested in the situation, leaving you free to pursue a resolution.
4) Think about resolution
If your boss is yelling at you, start forming action steps. If a customer is irate, let them vent while you consider what you can do to resolve their issue. If your kid is throwing a tantrum, focus your mind on the things you need to discuss when he or she calms down. If you’re stressed because a lot of things are happening at once, do a mental triage, instead of feeling like “I must immediately answer this phone call, read this email, sign this report, and talk to the person in front of me”.
A teacher friend of mine once described a day in her classroom where everything was going wrong at once. She said she had a moment of clarity when one student accidentally cut his hand on a pair of scissors. At that instant, she realized that everything else could wait, because this child was bleeding. She told me that, ever since then, when she feels like she’s in chaos, she stops to ask herself “Okay, who’s bleeding?”, meaning “What is the most important thing for me to handle right now?”, and starts there. It’s become her personal metaphor for crisis management, and I’ve adopted it, too.
What are your favorite techniques for handling stress?